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No Reason to Go to War


The signals coming out of Washington about the impending war against Iraq are ominous. This is not only because it would be an unprovoked and undeclared war against a nation that has not attacked us, but also because of the new reasons being offered.

The Bush administration tried its best to pin 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax mailings on Iraq. The effort failed dismally. You can be sure that if there had been evidence, we’d have heard about it.

Then the ground shifted to weapons of mass destruction. The scary word “nuclear” has been dropped here and there, but, again, no one has produced any evidence. Likewise for chemical and biological agents.

Saddam Hussein is not a nice man, and he may well be working on acquiring such weapons. But no one can say that he has them now. Scott Ritter, a former U.S. Marine who helped lead the UN inspection team in Iraq, is skeptical. At any rate, he thinks the way to find out is to get the inspectors back in. Saddam has been reluctant to let them return because he wants leverage against the decade-old economic embargo that has imposed such hardships on the Iraqi people. He also hasn’t forgotten that the U.S. government loaded the last inspection team with CIA agents. Now that President Bush is rattling his saber and has declared open season on Saddam personally, he might be unenthusiastic about inviting American spies back into the country. Dictators can be so unreasonable.

So the grounds for war are weak. The administration seems to sense that. Besides, it’s hard to miss the breaking of ranks. Among the rank-breakers are Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush, and Dick Armey, the Republican House majority leader. As a result, we’re now hearing a really bad reason to go to war: to protect the president’s credibility.

James R. Schlesinger, a key advisor in the Defense Department, said recently that “given all we have said as a leading world power about the necessity of regime change in Iraq … our credibility would be badly damaged if that regime change did not take place.”

An even more senior advisor to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, told the New York Times, “The failure to take on Saddam after what the president said would produce such a collapse of confidence in the president that it would set back the war on terrorism.”

So now it’s about keeping the president from looking bad. Well maybe Mr. Bush should have thought of that before he took his belligerent tone. We have a Constitution in this country. Mr. Bush took an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” it, and that means more than ensuring that the National Archives building isn’t attacked. He’s supposed to also abide by the Constitution.

I’ve read the brief Constitution, and I cannot find anything to suggest that a president may go to war on his own decision in order to keep from looking like a blustering paper tiger. Maybe that’s where “living Constitution” thinking takes you, but I don’t see it.

It is clear that Mr. Bush has no intention of asking Congress for a formal declaration of war. No president has asked for a declaration since FDR and World War II, but that hasn’t stopped the United States from getting into several wars since then. To ask for a declaration now would set a precedent, and the last thing the powers that be want is a precedent limiting the unconstitutionally assumed war powers of the presidency.

One thing Mr. Bush has going for him is that the public and most members of Congress don’t care. (Do they even know that the war power is reserved to Congress?) If they did care, perhaps Mr. Bush would give them the same consideration he gives his friends who run other countries.

But don’t worry. Mr. Bush at least thinks he’ll owe the American people an explanation for why going to war is necessary. According to the Associated Press, he intends to give them one — right after he launches the attack.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.