WASHINGTON – It was the first time since World War II that Congress had voted on a declaration of war. The action came a day after President Clinton approved the activation of up to 33,000 military reservists to serve in the Balkan conflict.
The measure that passed was backed by the Republican leadership. Pennsylvania Rep. William Goodling, the author of the Republican proposal, said Congress needed to be involved before the Kosovo conflict turns into a military operation with no defined exit strategy.
“If we don’t become involved, you’ll see something much worse than what we saw during Vietnam,” Goodling said.
Clinton and several NATO allies have insisted that they do not intend to place ground troops in Kosovo as long as it remains hostile territory. And in a letter yesterday to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R., Ill.), the President reiterated his belief that NATO will triumph “through the use of air power.”
But Clinton added: “Were I to change my policy with regard to the introduction of ground forces, I can assure you that I would fully consult with the Congress. Indeed, I would ask for congressional support before introducing U.S. ground forces into Kosovo into a non-permissive environment.”
The House rejected a fourth measure, 213-213, that would have formally authorized U.S. involvement in the NATO air strikes. It had been expected to fail because many Republicans viewed it as an endorsement of White House policies.
Hastert reflected the Republican ambivalence toward the resolutions, saying: “I don’t think it’s wise to mandate an immediate withdrawal – that would send a troubling signal to our allies about our commitment to NATO. Nor do I think it wise for the House to declare war without a specific request from the administration. Such a vote would be unprecedented in our history.”
A measure similar to the Republican-backed bill that passed the House yesterday is expected to be voted on in the Senate, possibly as early as tomorrow, according to John Czwartacki, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R., Miss.).
Clinton met with key lawmakers yesterday to discuss the Kosovo conflict and the votes that were under way in the House.
Speaking to reporters on the White House lawn afterward, Clinton said he had told the members that congressional support of the operation was important.
“Each day our military campaign takes a toll on Serbia’s machinery of repression,” he said. “The Serbian leadership has failed to divide us and will not outlast us. The combined military might and moral determination of Europe and North America will endure.”
But as Clinton spoke and the House debated, a group of former generals told the House Armed Services Committee that the Balkan air war had been badly botched.
The NATO alliance is having problems because there is a lack of unified military and political leadership, no specific strategic goals, and no desire to take higher-risk reward attacks, they said.
“This is Strategy 101, and all the external appearances indicate it’s amateur hour,” said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, former assistant Marine Corps commandant for command, control and communications.
The House action was taken at the prodding of a maverick Republican, Rep. Tom Campbell of California, who contended that Congress had a constitutional obligation, under the Vietnam-era War Powers Act, to vote on the war in Kosovo.
“I’m an average member of Congress,” said Campbell. “I’m not a senior member and I’m not in a leadership position. But I have a right – as a member of Congress – to come to the floor and require other members to vote on the record, up or down, when the question is war.”
Credit: Michael D. Towle, INQUIRER WASHINGTON BUREAU