Congress and the Gulf

CONGRESS starts a new session with what could be its toughest decision of the year: how to respond to President Bush's policy of taking the country to the brink of war in the Persian Gulf. Congressional involvement in the Gulf debate has been minimal since adjournment last Oct. 28. Some hearings were held, and a few prominent senators and representatives made their thoughts known. Now Congress is going to have to speak as an institution, an institution whose views should most closely reflect those of the American people.

Mr. Bush stressed the need for unity when he talked with congressional leaders this week. Saddam Hussein doubtless follows Washington's debates and counts on Democratic opposition to White House policy.

But that's no argument for stifling debate. No decision is more important than the launching of war, and the Constitution demands congressional consent on the matter.

Senate minority leader Bob Dole noted earlier this week that Americans had not yet committed themselves to war. He urged the president to exhaust the opportunities for peaceful settlement before ordering the bombs to fall. That's a starting point for Congress: bipartisan insistence on face-to-face talks between Washington and Baghdad.

Stubbornness over dates for such talks appears to be giving way. Iraq has indicated a willingness to switch from Saddam's Jan. 12 date. The US says it's willing to meet, and Secretary of State Baker will soon travel to the Mideast. He'll be ready should a new date materialize.

The European Community's foreign ministers, convening today, may take a hand in Gulf diplomacy too. That could help set the stage for US-Iraqi talks. And it doesn't hurt that the diplomatic initiatives be multinational - reflecting the far-flung alliance against Iraq.

There's no telling what talks will accomplish, but there's no doubt that the absence of discussion between Washington and Baghdad leaves a troubling void that shouldn't be filled, eventually, with shooting.

Beyond pushing for diplomatic contact with Iraq, Congress will have to weigh its own authorization for the use of force. If such an authorization is forthcoming, it should stipulate the exploration of diplomatic avenues first.

Congress has other important items on the agenda this year, but the Gulf crisis comes first. Congress has to assert its warmaking authority in order to assure that peace is given a fair chance.

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