WITH public support for military action in the Gulf waning and congressional demands for a role in deciding whether or not to go to war growing, President Bush has retreated to the time-honored tactic of declaring the subject off-limits to debate. Quoting former Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, Bush recently said that his Persian Gulf policy was beyond politics, which stops at the water's edge. When congressional criticism of President Reagan's ill-fated Lebanon adventure was rising, Secretary of State George Shultz charged that the Democrats ``just totally took the rug out from under the United States interests.'' President Jimmy Carter used a similar attack against primary opponent Sen. Edward Kennedy after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And previous presidents routinely raised the need for national solidarity to deflect criticism of their activist foreign policies.
In fact, the notion of a bipartisan foreign policy arose after World War II to forestall opposition to America's new role as world policeman. Before the war, President Roosevelt and his supporters tarred leading isolationists as unwitting agents of the Nazis. Afterward, President Truman formed an alliance with Republican and one-time isolationist Vandenberg to overwhelm Sen. Robert Taft and other skeptics of foreign intervention.
With Taft's death in 1953 and the defeat or retirement of other opponents of expansive global commitments, interventionism became fully bipartisan. Said Secretary of State Dean Acheson, foreign policy had to be developed ``outside of politics.'' Otherwise, he concluded, ``no consistent foreign policy is possible.''
The result was a permanent international role for the United States, marked by unprecedented peacetime military spending, two score alliances, hundreds of foreign bases, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers abroad. Another legacy of ``bipartisanship'' was a massive expansion of executive power and the concomitant elimination of the distinction between peacetime and wartime. Since World War II, the US has not been in a single official, or declared war, but more than 112,000 American soldiers have died - in Korea and Vietnam, as well as less lethal wars such as Grenada, Lebanon, and Panama. And thousands more could soon die in the Persian Gulf.
Yet President Bush is now demanding that critics shut up and support his policy. Even worse, he is telling Congress, which is entrusted with the constitutional responsibility for declaring war, that it should blindly back whatever action he takes.
But politics can stop at the water's edge only when policy stops at the water's edge. Those who believe Bush's actions to be misguided have a duty to criticize it. Indeed, it is far more important to closely scrutinize his Persian Gulf policy than any of his domestic initiatives. A mistaken tax hike will cost citizens money and injure the economy; a mistaken war will kill thousands of American and foreign citizens, destabilize a region, disrupt energy supplies, and waste untold billions of dollars.
Moreover, Congress has a constitutional duty to assert itself. While the president, as commander in chief, is necessarily empowered to respond to a surprise attack on the US, he is not authorized to initiate a war without congressional approval. Past unilateral presidential actions such as suppression of the Barbary Pirates do not justify a calculated decision to attack another country. Nor are there any exigent circumstances that prevent Congress from deciding what America's basic goal should be: a temporary shield to allow the Arab states to organize an anti-Iraq coalition, a permanent tripwire to safeguard Saudi Arabia, a limited assault to push Iraq out of Kuwait, or an all-out war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. To the contrary, the present stalemate provides precisely the sort of circumstances in which Congress should decide whether or not to go to war.
Robert Taft once said that ``the purpose of an opposition is to oppose.'' The president should stop hiding behind the illusion of bipartisanship in an attempt to prevent Congress from deciding whether or not we should go to war. No decision that important can be ``outside of politics.''