WASHINGTON — THE United States Congress is sitting about where it wants to be on the US military intervention in Haiti.
If there are high-profile US casualties and the operation goes sour, then most members can accurately say they never supported US military action in the first place. President Clinton, who avoided a congressional vote on an invasion, will take the blame.
If the intervention goes well, members can say ``so far, so good'' and cover themselves on any future mishaps by supporting a speedy end to the operation. Most voters probably won't hold it against them that they opposed intervention. Already, both houses have passed nonbinding resolutions applauding the negotiated deal and calling for a prompt withdrawal of US troops.
Over the past few months, as the drumbeat has built toward a US invasion, Congress has had ample opportunity to restrict Clinton's options in Haiti, but has not. In part, that's because the Democratic majority in both houses wants to support the Democratic president. But, say observers of Congress's role in foreign policy, Congress does not want to take on the risks associated with setting foreign policy.
This, paradoxically, comes at a time of growing interest and involvement by members of Congress in the foreign-affairs arena, says Scott Thompson, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., near Boston.
``They want to have it both ways,'' says Professor Thompson, who is also a presidential appointee to the board of the US Institute of Peace.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, chides both the president and his fellow legislators for their handling of Haiti. Before Sunday's intervention, he criticized Clinton for not seeking congressional authorization.
But in addition, Mr. Lugar stated in a preintervention radio address, ``the Congress must overcome its almost visceral reluctance to leave fingerprints on any foreign policy that involves political risk.''
``Rather than defining issues and choices more clearly, Congress often seeks to exploit them,'' he continues. ``Rather than trying to forge policy alternatives to unacceptable proposals from the executive branch, the Congress often seeks merely to increase the political costs of what the president wants to do.''
One issue that the administration and Congress have danced around is the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which sets in motion a timetable of requirements for both the president and Congress as soon as US troops have been deployed into hostilities or ``imminent involvement in hostilities.''
The resolution, a remnant of the Vietnam-war era, sought to settle an age-old dispute over how to reconcile two sections of the Constitution.
ONE states that Congress has the power to declare war, and another designates the president as ``commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States.''
Clinton's predecessors in the White House maintained that they did not need congressional authorization to deploy troops abroad, and when presidents have appeared to be complying with the resolution's reporting requirements, they have made clear that they were acting ``consistent with'' the law but not in direct compliance with it.
Little has changed with a Democrat in the presidency. And now that congressional Republicans no longer have a fellow Republican in the White House, many are demanding that the president must secure a go-ahead from Congress before a foreign military action - even though they supported Republican presidents' decisions not to do so before the invasions of Grenada and Panama. The US military action in the Persian Gulf, which did gain approval by Congress before it started, is not a comparable situation, because that was a much larger operation, says a former senior Clinton administration official.
Ultimately, some analysts argue, this is a moot debate: Presidents are going to do what they want and work to gain congressional support for an action when they feel the political need to, but not because of a law. Congress, for its part, will happily avoid risk.
In January 1993, during the defense-secretary confirmation hearings, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia questioned the need for the War Powers Resolution, saying ``it's never going to work.'' Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, then defense secretary-designate, agreed, but added that it wouldn't be worth the trouble to try to do away with it or alter it.
Peter Lakeland of Bethesda, Md., once a top aide to the late Sen. Jacob Javits (R) of New York and the drafter of the War Powers Resolution, defends his handiwork: ``It's been very useful.... It's given every administration a lot to think about. On the one hand, administrations say they're not bound by it, but they wind up considering it and conforming to it in some way or another.''