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UQ Wire: William Rivers Pitt - Byrdsong

Unanswered Questions: Thinking For Ourselves
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By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Sunday, 13 October, 2002

Mark the calendar. On October 10, 2002, the Congress of the United States of America set aside a large portion of its say regarding the declaration and prosecution of war. They ceded control of that most-important and Constitutionally-mandated responsibility to George W. Bush and his administration.

The House fell first, voting 296-133 for the Bush resolution for war on Iraq. This resolution, as drafted, gives authorization to Bush to "...use all means that he determines to be appropriate, including defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq, and restore international peace and security in the region." The breadth of this language, with its nebulous reference to "the region," offered Bush the legal ability to make war on any number of nations in the Middle East without further consulting Congress.

Focus on deliberations on this matter moved, after the House vote, to the chamber of the Senate. A host of Senators, including Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Joseph Biden, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, stated in public comments their plans to vote in favor of the resolution, guaranteeing its passage.

Daschle, in a written statement released on the eve of the vote, justified his Yes vote with the explanation that Bush's original proposal had been modified: "Instead of giving the President broad and unfocused authorization to take action 'in the region,' as the Administration originally sought, this resolution focuses specifically on the threat posed by Iraq. It no longer authorizes -- nor should it be used to try to justify -- the use of force against other nations, organizations or individuals that the President may believe threaten peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region. It is a strong and focused response to a specific threat. It is not a template or model for any other situation."

Daschle's statement continued with a nod to the UN: "This resolution expresses the deep conviction of this Congress, and of the American people, that President Bush should continue to work through the United Nations Security Council in order to secure Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions." The sentiment here is commendable, except for the use of one word: "Should." There is no command here, no teeth, no requirement that Bush seek the approval and support of the international community before making war.

The vacillation of the language in that passage was left aside when Daschle stated, "This resolution makes it clear that, before the President can use force in Iraq, he must certify to the Congress that diplomacy has failed, and that further diplomatic efforts alone cannot protect America's national security interests, nor can they lead to enforcement of the UN Security Council resolutions." In this section of the statement, "Should" has become "must." An amendment to the resolution requiring an indication of immediate threat before an attack is undertaken, however, was defeated in Senate debate on Thursday night.

The fact that the dangerous language referring to "the region" was expurgated did not quiet the deep reservations of the senior Senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd. Byrd has for days been the leader of a small but vocal minority of Senators who see the passage of this resolution as an absolutely contra-constitutional abdication of responsibility by the Congress.

Mr. Byrd, in an editorial in Thursday's New York Times, stated, "How have we gotten to this low point in the history of Congress? Are we too feeble to resist the demands of a president who is determined to bend the collective will of Congress to his will - a president who is changing the conventional understanding of the term 'self-defense'? And why are we allowing the executive to rush our decision-making right before an election? Congress, under pressure from the executive branch, should not hand away its Constitutional powers."

The editorial continued, "Why are we being hounded into action on a resolution that turns over to President Bush the Congress's Constitutional power to declare war? This resolution would authorize the president to use the military forces of this nation wherever, whenever and however he determines, and for as long as he determines, if he can somehow make a connection to Iraq. It is a blank check for the president to take whatever action he feels 'is necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.' This broad resolution underwrites, promotes and endorses the unprecedented Bush doctrine of preventive war and pre-emptive strikes - detailed in a recent publication, 'National Security Strategy of the United States' - against any nation that the president, and the president alone, determines to be a threat.

On the floor of the Senate on Thursday night, in a chamber emptied of every member but those vocal few who had stood with him in his determined opposition, Byrd held forth a copy of the Constitution in one trembling, aged hand. Mr. Byrd is considered by every Senator to be the master parliamentarian in that body, and he keeps at all times that copy of the constitution in his breast pocket, next to his heart.

Senator Byrd concluded his comments in the New York Times by stating, "We are at the gravest of moments. Members of Congress must not simply walk away from their Constitutional responsibilities. We are the directly elected representatives of the American people, and the American people expect us to carry out our duty, not simply hand it off to this or any other president. To do so would be to fail the people we represent and to fall woefully short of our sworn oath to support and defend the Constitution. We may not always be able to avoid war, particularly if it is thrust upon us, but Congress must not attempt to give away the authority to determine when war is to be declared. We must not allow any president to unleash the dogs of war at his own discretion and for an unlimited period of time. Yet that is what we are being asked to do. The judgment of history will not be kind to us if we take this step."

The judgment of history is all that remains. The step has been taken, the die cast, and the structure of governmental power has been forever altered. War is now in the hands of one man, George W. Bush, and not in the deliberative body that is Congress. This is unprecedented, and profoundly disturbing.

On Thursday night, an old man of the Senate, shaken but unbowed, stood before the American people to register one last time his fear and anger that Congress could have taken such a strange and dangerous action. For all the world, he seemed to have stepped whole from the mind of Shakespeare - the ghost of Hamlet's father, pointing with spectral hand towards a bleak future, and towards a king with blood on his hands.

"But know, thou noble youth," said the ghost, "the serpent that did sting thy father's life now wears the crown."


William Rivers Pitt is a teacher from Boston, MA. He is the author of two books - "War On Iraq" (with Scott Ritter) available now from Context Books, and "The Greatest Sedition is Silence," available in April 2003 from Pluto Press.

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