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Presidential Power Must Come First

Column by Daniel Stevenson

When an urgent international crisis arises it is important that the president be able to take whatever American action is necessary and appropriate. Historically, such action has been by necessity prompt and resolute. In highly fluid international situations, it is imperative that any decisions come from one and only one source, the president, with no second guessing or conflicting orders. However, a recent proposal by Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) seeks to tie the president's hands and require Congressional pre-approval of any action by American forces in such circumstances. Dole's proposal is a politically motivated, ludicrous, and potentially dangerous violation of the president's constitutional powers.

Dole and his supporters were the same group arguing just two years ago to allow former President Bush a free hand with Operation Desert Storm. Now, however, they want to dictate foreign policy in Somalia and Haiti, operations of a much smaller and more unilateral and peaceful nature than the action in Kuwait, raising important questions as to their motives.

America has a history of rapidly responding to important world crises like in Kuwait, whether to save American lives, to provide disaster relief, or to defend oppressed people. When these situations arise, it is the president, in the constitutional role of commander in chief, who must make quick, informed decisions and implement them expeditiously. Dole's proposal, in effect creating 535 independent and unaccountable commanders in chief, would stifle any kind of immediate action with time wasted in unnecessary debate and political posturing. Our inaction would weaken the confidence of our allies and potentially result in further loss of life.

In order to examine the folly of Dole's proposal, imagine, if you will, an impending international crisis: an outbreak of violent fighting in Pakistan or any other potential hotspot. Innocent civilians and perhaps American citizens are threatened, and immediate international action is needed to avoid further bloodshed and disaster. The United Nations Security Council, convening in an emergency session, votes to send in a quick response team, composed in part of United States forces. With the current system of checks and balances, the president in his role of supreme commander could authorize American participation in such intervention with the stroke of a pen and the forces could be on the scene in a matter of hours. Later, if the action continued, Congress, under the War Powers Act, would be able to exercise control over the situation, preventing abuses of power such as in Vietnam. This system manages to find a happy medium between necessarily swift action and long term intervention.

However, if Senator Dole has his way, any recommendation for American action would have to wend its way through the tortuous paths of Congress, subject to the inaction and infighting that plagues the legislative system. Debate might begin in one or two days, assuming urgent matters such as congressional pay raises and a proclamation announcing "National Oyster Appreciation Day" were quickly resolved. Then, amid posturing for C-SPAN and inane political rhetoric, the proposal would probably meet a slow and painful death by any one of the favorite methods of Congresspersons, including being piggybacked with irrelevant and unpassable legislation, becoming pigeonholed for future inaction, or the ubiquitous Senate filibuster. Considering past lines of questioning, army generals might even be questioned as to the citizenship of their housekeepers, and the debacles of the Anita Hill trial or confirmation hearings would be needlessly repeated. Even if the bill had little opposition, many senators and representatives are notorious for taking immense pleasure in listening to the sound of their own voices endlessly repeating the obvious.

One irrational concern raised by Dole is the fear of losing more American lives. The recent heavy casualties in Somalia have worried many lawmakers about the public consequences of sometimes brutal action. What they don't realize is you can't have your cake and eat it too -- any armed action has a certain amount of risk. To be brutally honest, America has lost much fewer soldiers in United Nations peacekeeping mission than other countries. Since 1945, less than 30 American soldiers have been killed in peacekeeping operations, compared with over 1,000 from other nations. U.S. forces make up only 5 percent of U.N. forces and are involved in only seven of the 17 current operations.

There is a time and a place for requiring congressional approval of foreign intervention, such as declarations of war or large scale combat operations. However, requiring congressional approval on every matter of urgent action is a ridiculous extension of oversight. Certain predicaments entail expeditious and determined action, and such action can only come from one person, the president, unfettered by an indecisive and unmotivated Congress.