AFTER three months of nearly undebated support for President Bush's Middle East policy toward Iraq, Congress and the American people suddenly are expressing second thoughts. Congress is concerned that America's slide toward the brink of war in the Middle East may be greased. Across the ideological spectrum, Democratic and Republican members of Congress increasingly are urging President Bush to slow the apparent move toward conflict.
Against a backdrop of growing public concern, Congress is worried that the United States may toboggan into an unchartable Middle East war without the Senate, the House, or the public even understanding the purpose of America's military presence in the Middle East, let alone why war is necessary. And without the public and congressional support necessary to produce victory.
Congress fears war will come and that it will be unable to do anything to prevent it, much as it feels occurred in Vietnam.
Today's rising congressional concern likely will lead to months of hearings and debate. ``The big issue over the next few months will be the confrontation between Congress and the president'' over the roles of the two arms of government in deciding whether to go to war, says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
Already there has been plenty of confrontation from individual members of Congress.
Wyoming's conservative Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) says America must consider whether to declare war on Iraq - not in order to fight, but ``as a means of trying to figure out'' what the US purpose in the Gulf should be. ``That's what we did not do in Korea, what we did not do in Vietnam, what we did not do in Beirut,'' Senator Wallop says.
Wallop foreshadowed the current debate in a thoughtful Senate speech Oct. 24, during the frantic, pre-recess days of Congress. But hardly anyone paid any attention, including his colleagues.
Massachusetts' liberal senator, Edward Kennedy (D), says Congress should swiftly return ``to debate the issue of war or peace in the Persian Gulf.''
Georgia's military expert, Sen. Sam Nunn (D), says President Bush ``has a real obligation'' to explain why it is in America's interest to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
Indiana's foreign policy expert, Sen. Richard Lugar (R), says Congress should be immediately recalled ``to debate and vote on authorizing the president to commit United States military forces and United States financial resources to complete fulfillment of United States missions in the Middle East. Our aims must be clear.''
In advance of Wednesday's White House briefing for congressional leaders, presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said calling a special session of Congress would be unnecessary because that action would assume that a war is coming.
``What's happening is not unhealthy, and is not simple politics,'' says Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution. After Congress adjourned late last month President Bush ``got the country's attention and the Congress's attention by ... virtually doubling'' US troop levels in the Middle East, ``and by signaling that our objective has changed somewhat from defensive to offensive'' - from protecting Saudi Arabia against Iraq to evicting Iraq from Kuwait.
From all this attention have come two results, Dr. Mann says:
``Some serious questioning about the respective authority and responsibility between the president and Congress in the making of war.... There is this growing sentiment that the president cannot act on his own'' when no imminent threat exists to America or Americans, and when ``timing is not of the essence.''
``The first stirrings of a debate about the wisdom of moving toward war with Saddam. That's happening spontaneously'' in Congress and throughout America, where support for the president's handling of the situation has plunged in the past two months. A poll released Tuesday by USA Today, concluded that a narrow 51 percent of Americans now approve of the president's leadership in the Gulf crisis, compared with 81 percent on Aug. 20. Only 38 percent of Americans support the president's announced doubling of American troops in the Middle East, the poll reported.
In mid-September a Roper poll indicated that Americans gave little support to aggressive military action. It concluded that they ``favored passive military action'' like stationing defensive forces in Saudi Arabia ``and they thought it would work,'' says Burns Roper, chairman of the board of the Roper Organization Inc. ``They opposed the aggressive military action'' like invading Iraq or Kuwait.
To recapture the initiative on this issue at home President Bush ``is going to have to do two things,'' Mann says:
``Start a more substantial conversation with the country'' about the advantages and liabilities of war in the Middle East.
Plan on asking Congress to declare war if there is to be one.