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Published: Monday, 7/14/2008

War powers

TWO former secretaries of state, James A. Baker III and Warren Christopher, have put forward a bipartisan proposal to replace the War Powers Act of 1973 and give Congress greater standing in future decisions to take the country to war.

Although the initiative is a result of President Bush's Iraq war adventure, the problem is an old one that is inherent in the government's structure. Under the Constitution, Congress has the power to declare war, but the president is civilian commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The War Powers Act, passed in the final years of the Vietnam War, sought to limit the president's authority to commit troops to war unilaterally. But the retired cabinet officers, who presided over a yearlong study of the law, called it "ineffective at best and unconstitutional at worst."

Their solution is to require the president to meet with a new committee of congressional leaders and appropriate committee chairmen before launching combat that could last longer than a week, except in cases of emergency. Congress would then have a month to vote the action up or down.

The decision to enter a war that can last years is a grave matter, one that should require consensus, which Congress, representing the American people, can provide. At the same time, everyone understands that today's hair-trigger international dynamics and looming terrorist attacks could require almost instant action by a president.

The deception of the Bush Administration leading up to the Iraq war, which included false assertions about weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaeda prior to the 2003 invasion, left the mechanism of the War Powers Act in a shambles. Mr. Bush did not seek a declaration of war from Congress, but got authorization from lawmakers to use the military to enforce United Nations weapons sanctions.

The proposal by Mr. Baker, a Republican, and Mr. Christopher, a Democrat, seeks to avoid a repetition of that debacle. Mr. Baker's participation is significant in and of itself. He was secretary of state under President George H. W. Bush and the lead lawyer in securing the presidency for George W. Bush in the 2000 post-election fight over Florida's votes.

While the changes he and Mr. Christopher propose are desirable, they are, in principle, unnecessary. Since the start of the Iraq war, Congress has been dealt out of the decision-making process largely because of its collective spinelessness. It could have stopped the rush to war by turning down President Bush's initial war-powers request, and it could stop the war now by cutting off funding.

With the presidential election less than four months away, the Baker-Christopher plan is unlikely to go anywhere. Mr. Bush would veto anything that highlighted his mistakes, and Congress is unlikely to be courageous at this point.

Still, the issue of how to keep Congress informed and involved in any decision to take America to war will keep coming back. Lawmakers can help their cause by showing some backbone.



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