Congress: Assert yourself with the president

With Congress in a headlong rush to declare war on Spain in 1898, an American landowner in Cuba implored the Speaker of the House to stop it.

"Well," replied the Speaker, "what is the use of being right when everybody else is wrong?" Congress was so mad, it declared war twice.

This was a measure of the war passions sweeping Congress and the country. Today, the public is equally inflamed - with good reason - and Congress is equally bellicose, abandoning its constitutional role of a check on the president.

Today, President Bush is fighting two wars. One is against terrorism, the other pits his instincts against his better judgment. His instincts, encouraged by his secretary and deputy secretary of Defense, tell him to go after terrorists and the governments that harbor them - never mind the rest of the world. This war leads to an endless quest that will create more terrorists for every one we exterminate. It will ultimately make us like the people we are fighting; and in making us like them, our enemies will win.

Mr. Bush's better judgment, encouraged by his father and his secretary of State, tells him to cultivate allies and to proceed, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, "with a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." Such a war is winnable, partly because we are stronger and richer, but mainly because we will have most of the world on our side.

Congress needs to assert itself on the side of the president's better judgment - even though some members share his instincts. It should revisit controversial issues that it has been at pains to avoid since Sept. 11. Congress was right to do this in the beginning. Political debate would have been unseemly while rubble was first being cleared and casualties counted and mourned. But political debate is not only appropriate now; it is also necessary in the making of national policy.

The issue that leaps out ahead of all others is missile defense. The Senate removed some restrictions on the missile-defense program to present a united front on the defense-authorization bill. Now, Russian President Putin's concern over Islamic fundamentalism has moved him to closer cooperation with the Bush war on terrorism than many (including this writer) thought possible. What a great quid pro quo it would be, voluntarily and on our initiative, to put missile defense on hold while we deal with terrorism.

It will no doubt be argued in the White House and Pentagon that terrorism makes missile defense more important. It can more forcefully be argued that terrorism makes closer ties with Russia and China more important.

Congress also needs to assess more skeptically what the executive branch tells it. This war - perhaps more than any other - will be based on secret intelligence. We will hear repeatedly from the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department that the reasons for particular actions are based on hard facts that must remain secret to protect sources and methods of gathering intelligence. Recent history abounds with the use of this excuse to cover up government dissembling, or worse - among other examples, the Johnson administration in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, and the Reagan administration in Libya and Nicaragua.

What makes this problem so difficult is that sometimes there is good reason for secrecy.

In these cases, what should not be told to the public should be told to Congress. This is one reason the House and Senate Intelligence Committees were created, and they have a good record of keeping legitimate secrets. But they have to keep asking questions; they cannot be satisfied with the stalling or evasions or half-answers that they will receive in abundance. On this score, the committees do not have a good record.

Congress also needs to be more skeptical of requests by the Justice Department and CIA for greater investigative powers that infringe on the Constitution. Civil liberties often take beatings during national crises. Congress should be tough in holding the line. New powers should be hemmed in by appropriate safeguards.

If Congress lives up to its constitutional responsibilities, the United States will come out of this war a stronger and more respected nation than it is now. It will have upheld the principles that have made it great, without sinking to the level of its enemies.

Pat M. Holt was the former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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