At least since World War II, Americans have recognized the growing power wielded by the "imperial presidency." That modern American heads of state occupy an office more potent than that of their 18th- and 19th-century predecessors is obvious.

But rarely has the point been made so baldly as in recent claims by the White House that President Bush has the power to wage war against Iraq on his own say-so. And rarely has such a claim been rebutted so feebly as it has been by lawmakers who suggest little more than that it'd be nice if the president dropped by for a chat.

That's a shame on two counts. First, even if the president possesses unparalleled wisdom, it's dangerous to grant one person unquestioned authority to send young soldiers to kill and die in assaults on other nations. Second, the wisdom of resuming hostilities against Iraq is not beyond question — we would be well-served by a debate over the matter by the people's elected representatives.

To a certain extent, Congress is the author of its own growing irrelevance. Even though Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution grants the legislative branch the power "to declare War … to raise and support Armies … to provide and maintain a Navy," lawmakers have surrendered a growing share of their authority to the executive branch with little protest.

Technically, the Vietnam-era War Powers Act requires congressional approval for military actions after 60 days, but modern armies move so swiftly that wars might be entries in history books by the time the law kicks in. Besides, presidents from both major parties have bluntly dismissed the War Powers Act and Congress has done little to challenge them on the point.

In fact, Congress made matters worse with a 1991 resolution authorizing the current president's father to use force against Iraq. Like careless children, legislators left this dangerous toy lying around after the Gulf War concluded, to be brandished once again over a decade later.

A few lonely lawmakers have complained about President Bush's monarchical assertion of military authority. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a frequent critic of the administration, said the decision of going to war "should not be treated like a technicality." Rep. Tom Tancredo, from the president's own party, has made the talk-show circuit warning that the life-and-death stakes inherent in waging in waging war must be debated by Congress.

And it's worth emphasizing that there is a lot to debate. For starters, how much of a threat does Saddam Hussein actually pose to the United States?

Saddam Hussein is an evil dictator, we're told, who brutalizes his own people. That's undoubtedly true, but it's an odd position to take while trying to drum up support among Saudi Arabia's authoritarian rulers for a change of administration in Baghdad. As the Cato Institute's Doug Bandow points out, "the world is full of brutal regimes that have murdered their own people. Indeed, Washington ally Turkey's treatment of its Kurds is scarcely more gentle than Iraq's Kurdish policies."

And Iraq's fractured opposition groups look attractive only in relative terms. The prospects for building a new democracy from poor materials are best demonstrated by the faltering experiment in Afghanistan.

We're also told that Saddam Hussein's regime is developing weapons of mass destruction. That's also apparently true, but it adds Iraq to an already crowded club. Many of the world's nastier governments already have chemical, biological and even nuclear arsenals. Well-armed countries with evil intentions refrain from attacking the United States for fear of massive retaliation.

As Robert Higgs noted for the Independent Institute, "Whatever else one may think about Saddam, no one can deny that he has been a wily leader, keenly concerned about his personal survival. He hardly qualifies as a potential suicide bomber."

The best argument for an attack on Iraq would be a connection between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attack. But while such a connection has been rumored, little evidence has been offered of an Iraqi role in the suicide bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

House majority leader Rep. Dick Armey recently cautioned, "If we try to act against Saddam Hussein, as obnoxious as he is, without proper provocation, we will not have the support of other nation states." Armey also warned that such an attack "would not be consistent with what we have been as a nation or what we should be as a nation."

If the administration can conclusively demonstrate a connection between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11, it might demonstrate a "proper provocation" and could win an open debate over military action. Then the White House would be free to build support and recruit allies for its efforts.

But that would require an actual debate in Congress over war. Rep. Armey was freed to speak his mind by his impending retirement. Fearful of bucking a popular president who has targeted a hated enemy, too few of his colleagues from either party seem willing to put their careers on the line by vigorously demanding a full discussion of the wisdom of waging a new war.

So, with little effort to justify his actions, an imperial president moves the most powerful nation on Earth toward the latest deadly conflict. Sitting on the sidelines, too many lawmakers seem content to let their constitutional authority be the first casualty of war.

J.D. Tuccille is a Flagstaff-based Senior Editor of The Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-Market.Net (

— Arizona Daily Sun


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