Controversy is brewing in Washington over intelligence failures underlying the administration’s claims about the threat posed by Iraq. The president has appointed a new commission to study the issue, but its true mission may be political damage control for the November election. CIA director George Tenet, knowing he is the most convenient scapegoat, carefully distanced himself from the White House last week. He admitted that bad information caused the agency to “overestimate” Iraq’s weapons capability, and that the Iraqi threat was never labeled “imminent.”
We should not make Mr. Tenet the scapegoat. The issue is not whether our intelligence was perfect, but rather the process by which we allow our government to commit troops to war. That process bypassed Congress almost entirely.
Congress is to blame for its craven failure to seriously debate, much less declare, war in Iraq. The Constitution squarely charges Congress with the duty to declare war, a weighty responsibility that our founders thought should rest with the body most directly responsible to the people. The president’s status as commander-in-chief grants him the power only to execute war, not to decide whether war is justified. This is not seriously debatable by anyone who honestly examines the Constitution and the Federalist papers.
Various weak and disingenuous arguments have been made claiming that watered-down congressional resolutions authorizing force are adequate, and that war has been waged in the past without express declarations. But the letter of the Constitution trumps political expediency, and past sins hardly justify ignoring the rule of law today. It is pathetic to hear supposedly strict-constructionist conservatives use Clintonian verbal gymnastics to justify their party’s unconstitutional actions.
The furor over bad intelligence is a little late, to put it mildly. A proper investigation and debate by Congress clearly was warranted prior to any decision to go to war. The consequences cannot be undone. Hundreds of American soldiers have been killed, thousands more maimed or injured. More than one hundred billion dollars have been spent, and billions more will be needed to support our open-ended occupation of Iraq. The current after-the-fact debate is hollow and political. We now see those who abdicated their congressional responsibility to declare or reject war, who timidly voted to give the president the power he wanted, posturing as his harshest critics.
The administration rushes to claim that the justifications for war do not matter, because Saddam was worthy of removal anyway. But we’ve heard that tired argument a million times. Is the president prepared to commit troops to remove every bad guy around the globe? Of course not. Iraq has been in this administration’s crosshairs since well before September 11th. It does matter if the administration lied or exaggerated to win public support; it does matter if our war in Iraq was just or unjust.
The president stated in a speech last week that had Saddam Hussein remained in power, the United Nations resolutions and condemnations would be “scraps of paper amounting to nothing.” In the eyes of many conservatives and libertarians, it is our own Constitution being treated as a meaningless scrap of paper.