When Jimmy Carter was running for President four years ago, he was an outspoken advocate of consulting Congress on foreign-policy exploits. "In every foreign venture that has failed -- whether it was Vietnam, Cambodia , Chile, or Angola, or in the excesses of the CIA -- our government forged ahead without consulting the American people . . .," he told the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in March 1976.
Asked in an interview shortly afterward about the War Powers Act of 1973, which calls for consultation with Congress before sending American military forces into combat overseas, Mr. Carter endorsed the law.
"I think it makes it much more incumbent on the President and Congress to share the responsibilities at an early stage of the evolution of foreign policy, " he said.
Now, four years later, Mr. Carter appears to many to have disregarded his own advice.
He has shunned prior consultation with the other elected branch of government -- whether or not technically required under the War Powers Act -- and an opportunity to "share the responsibilities" of his risky undertaking. And he, and the country, are left with another "foreign venture that has failed."
The President evidently consulted just one lawmaker, Senate majority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia --April 23 that the operation to rescue the American hostages in Iran already had been set in motion 13 days earlier.
Like the aborting of the mission itself, the apparent aborting of any congressional consultation raises questions here.
Should plans for the rescue operation have been discussed with Congress?
The War Powers Act -- an outgrowth of congressional frustration over the Indochina war policies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations -- directs the President to consult Congress "before introducing United States armed forces into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances."
Neither Mr. Carter nor, indeed, all congressional leaders feel the law applies to this case.
The President was advised 10 days beforehand by Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti that consultation was not required for such a rescue operation (although Congress, in drafting the law, had specifically rejected a proposal permitting the President to act unilaterally under certain circumstances, including rescue missions).
The Senate majority leader agrees, saying: "In spirit and intent I don't think there was any violation."
But leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and many other lawmakers contend the 1973 law is tailormade for the Iranian venture and its bypassing merits a congressional investigation.
Their concern is more than mere hindsight. On the day before the operation crashed to public attention -- and a tragic end -- in the Iranian desert, committee chairman Frank Church (D) of Idaho and ranking minority member Jacob K. Javits (R) of New York sent a prescient letter to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance suggesting that "the time has come to commence the consultation procedures" of the law.
Legalities apart, would it have been practical to consult Congres on an operation that depended for its success on secrecy and surprise?
The second-ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Edward Derwinski of Illinois, has his doubts.
"If congressional committees had been informed," he says, "there would have been enough leaks to alert the Iranians."
But others say consultation need have involved only a small circle of lawmakers well accustomed to safeguarding classified information, such as those on the foreign affairs committees, and arrangements could have been worked out to "ensure the strictest confidentiality."
As for aby overriding sense of urgency, some on Capitol hill note that the raid had been planned since five days after the American Embassy in Tehran was seized last November. That, they say, offered ample opportunity to satisfy the provision of the law that Congress be consulted "in every possible instance."
Might consultation have helped avert the failure?
Not necessarily, say congressional insiders, particularly if the breakdown was (as the administration claims) purely "mechanical."
But a review of the plans by critical congressional eyes, they say, might have uncovered unseen pitfalls or ways of lowering the risks.
"I think [the President] might have been dissuaded because of the high risks of such a mission and the ominous consequences of failure," Senator Church suggests.