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'Big Stick' Approach To Iraq Masks Uncertainty On Hill

By Donna Cassata, CQ Staff Writer

Before the cameras, Republicans and Democrats are standing firmly by President Clinton in his showdown with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who has refused to open suspected weapons sites to United Nations inspectors.

But beyond the tough talk, Congress is wrestling with several uncertainties over the U.S. response to Iraq and is pressuring the Clinton administration for clear-cut answers.

There are doubts about the level of allied and Arab support in the absence of an obvious Iraqi provocation, such as the 1990 invasion of neighboring Kuwait.

Lawmakers also are wondering whether a bombing campaign would be sufficient or whether greater U.S. military force would be necessary, such as the use of ground troops.

And they are asking whether the Clinton administration has an end-game strategy in the event that after all the cruise-missile attacks, an antagonized Saddam is left standing.

"We better be sure of what we're going to do, how we're going to do it and what our staying power is," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a senior member of the Armed Services Committee.

Such uncertainty the week of Feb. 2 complicated congressional efforts to craft a resolution signaling support for the president.

For the second straight week, a non-binding statement of support (SCONRES71) was on hold as Senate Republicans and Democrats grappled with the final wording and chose to delay action until after a series of closed-door briefings from senior Clinton administration officials.

The leadership expected to finalize a resolution and vote the week of Feb. 9. The House was awaiting the Senate's action.

Apart from negotiations over the resolution of support there was an institutional question of whether a resolution that Congress passed in 1991 (PL 102-1) authorizing the president to use military force against Iraq was still viable seven years later.

That earlier resolution states that "the president is authorized to use United States Armed Forces pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 678." The president was George Bush, and the U.N. resolution dealt with Iraq's refusal to end its occupation of Kuwait.

There was unanimity among lawmakers that the measure did give the president legal authority now to unleash an attack on Iraq.

But some argued that politically it would be wise for Clinton to seek congressional authority to use force, just as lawmakers successfully pressured Bush to do in January 1991.

"I don't think it's required as a matter of law, but as a matter of global politics, it's a very good idea," said Sen. Charles S. Robb, D-Va., a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.

But Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., the ranking minority member on the House Appropriations National Security Subcommittee, said the 1991 law is enough: "We don't need another resolution."

During his five years in office, Clinton has not felt the need to ask for congressional authorization before dispatching military forces.

He did not seek advance congressional authority for the 1993 cruise-missile attack on Iraqi intelligence installations in retaliation for an assassination plot against Bush when he visited Kuwait.

The administration did not seek congressional authorization when the mission in Somalia changed from a humanitarian aid operation to an ill-fated hunt for warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid and deadly involvement of U.S. troops in the African nation's domestic battles.

A year later, Clinton ignored a non-binding Senate resolution stating that he needed congressional approval before sending troops overseas, and dispatched forces to the Caribbean to remove a military junta from power in Haiti. Diplomatic negotiations averted a conflict.

With the exception of Iraq, Clinton's predecessors have acted in similar fashion. Neither former President Ronald Reagan, who launched a surprise invasion of Grenada in 1983, nor Bush, who sent troops to Panama in 1989, sought authorization from Congress.

"No president thinks they need more" authority, Murtha said.

In the past, Congress has threatened to invoke the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which requires consultation with Congress before committing U.S. troops to potential conflicts and places a 60-day limit on their involvement.

Few lawmakers have mentioned the War Powers Resolution with reference to Iraq, but they contend that a congressional resolution would serve several purposes.

It would show Saddam there are no divisions in U.S. ranks, help the administration make its case to the American people, signal resolve to allies and Mideast regimes and, in the long run, foster a bipartisan, cooperative atmosphere for the remainder of the year.

"Let's not focus on legalism here," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "We know what needs to be done -- get a good plan and sell it to the American people."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking minority member on the Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee, said Clinton "would be well-advised, as Bush did, to seek a resolution."

Tough Talk

While Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright sought the support of doubtful allies such as France, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and Clinton dispatched a third aircraft carrier and 2,000 Marines to the Persian Gulf, the bold talk against Iraq intensified on Capitol Hill.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., went so far as to suggest that the removal of Saddam was the key to any overall U.S. military attack.

"Take out the palace guard -- take out the palaces," Lott said Feb. 3. "Take out every . . . target and hope that you can put one missile down . . . where Saddam Hussein is."

The next day, Lott said the goal was to "weaken him, weaken his resolve and find a way to remove him from office one way or the other."

Gingrich commented Feb. 4 at the Capitol, "We have to adopt a position that he [Saddam] will either agree to unlimited U.N. inspections or we will have to replace him with a regime that will agree to end this kind of [weapons] program."

Clinton and some congressional Republicans cautioned against talk of assassinating a foreign leader, noting that it was a violation of U.S. policy and international agreements.

"Would the Iraqi people be better off if there were a change in leadership?" Clinton said Feb. 5. "I certainly think they would be. But that is not what the United Nations has authorized us to do."

Said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine: "It's against the law."

Lott later sought to clarify his comments, indicating that he was not suggesting an assassination attempt, but did hope that Saddam would be removed from power.

Senators turned out in force for two closed-door briefings Feb. 3 and 4 by Albright, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Albright and Berger also briefed Republican and Democratic leaders in the House.

Particularly troubling to lawmakers has been the lack of support from the governments of Arab countries despite Albright's contention that none of the regimes she visited rejected the United States' use of force.

Without Arab backing, military options would be limited, since American aircraft would be unable to use bases in those countries as a staging area.

"From a technical standpoint, I don't see the pieces falling in place," said Murtha, who noted that the United States still has not secured an agreement from Saudi Arabia to use its air bases.

A Few Words

Congress appeared to be on track for quick approval of the resolution signaling bipartisan support for the steps Clinton would take to force Saddam to open suspected weapons sites to inspectors.

But the resolution's phrasing, which would urge the president "to take all necessary and appropriate actions to respond effectively to the threat posed by Iraq's refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs," proved to be an uncomfortable reminder of the Vietnam War to a number of senators.

Democrats, led by Vietnam veteran Max Cleland of Georgia, said the language was as broad and open-ended as the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution that essentially gave the president a blank check to wage war in Southeast Asia. They blocked Senate action on the Iraqi resolution Jan. 29.

Republican and Democratic leaders tried to assuage the concerns by adding a clause to the resolution stating that the president should take action "in consultation with Congress and consistent with the law and the Constitution."

While that proposal appeared acceptable to lawmakers, Cleland and Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., raised concerns about other phrases in the resolution.

Byrd questioned the words "definitely ending" in the last section of the resolution which urges the president "to work with Congress in furthering a long-term policy aimed at definitely ending the threat to international peace."

Cleland questioned the decision of Senate leaders to urge the president to "respond effectively" to Iraq rather than just to "respond" as the original resolution read.

The disagreements appeared to be minor, and Senate leaders hoped to complete the resolution the week of Feb. 9.

"Whenever you get 100 senators or two lawyers, every word is examined carefully," Lott said.

Whether the concurrent, non-binding resolution would be sufficient congressional authorization was unclear, as was whether lawmakers would press for a more formal vote on war when military action was imminent.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said the concurrent resolution was simply an "axiom to the joint resolution" Congress passed in 1991.

"This is like saying, I've got another thing I want to say about this," Daschle said.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
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