The Bush administration may be correct, in a technical sense, that a standing congressional authorization left over from the Gulf War permits it to wage war on Iraq. Yet even with that, along with its reading of Constitutional tea leaves over "who decides to go to war," a solo White House decision to attack Iraq violates the democratic process and would be politically irresponsible. (See story.)
"Making war" and "declaring war" are two different things, the Constitution's framers decided. But the distinction doesn't make a difference when this possible war needs the kind of public discussion that will ensure long-term support for what could be messy, unforeseen consequences.
The administration's urgency to squelch Saddam Hussein's nuclear program without congressional approval would seem like a big mistake if such a war goes wrong.
Mr. Bush is politically attuned enough to engage in deliberations on the subject, saying he is a "deliberative man" who would "consult" with Congress. If the facts are so compelling, why not go right to Congress and work cooperatively to gain authorization or at the least ensure funding for the war and postwar cleanup?
As commander in chief, the president works with a Congress that has declared a war and that has authority to stop a war with its budget-approving powers. The authorization that Bush received from Congress after 9/11 was clearly in response to the US being attacked. It gave the president authority to take defensive measures against terrorism. The prospective attack on Iraq is being interpreted as similarly defensive. All the legal wrangling, though, misses a point: Gaining support for a "regime change" in Iraq is essential.
Mr. Bush and his security officials wouldn't need a protracted hearing on the Hill. The Iraqi menace is well documented, and the element of a surprise attack cannot be ignored.
Congress could, of course, decide not to declare war, at least not for now. Many members may be reluctant to risk their political career by voting for a war that could end up being very costly in lives, money, and esteem for the United States.
The Bush administration claims the risk of doing nothing is now higher than doing something against Iraq. While the lessons of history point that way, history also shows any democracy needs popular support to go to war. For all its faults, Congress is still the heart of US democracy. Bush commands high popular support, and need not fear sharing his responsibility for the right decision.