Advice to the president- Learn from history

Sunday, September 29, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- We will soon be off to war.

President George W. Bush seems to prefer to conduct foreign and military policy on a unilateral, take-it-or-leave-it basis. If Bush is the Lone Ranger, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is Tonto.

First, a little history.

In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson conned Congress into passing the Tonkin Gulf Resolution giving him open-ended authority to wage war anywhere in Southeast Asia. A draft of a resolution had been sitting in a safe in the State Department for several months. All that was needed was to wait for a North Vietnamese "provocation" against the United States that would justify an American military response. Johnson simply had to fill in the blanks.

The "provocation" was phony.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has spent the closing years of his tortured life doing nationwide mea culpas about the Vietnam War in general and the pretextual nature of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in particular.

Then-U.S. Sen. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, guided the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through Congress. He too spent his later years doing the mea culpa circuit: "I was deceived by the president. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution is the greatest error of my lifetime."

President Bush now seeks from Congress another open-ended, blank-check resolution seeking authority to do whatever he wants, wherever he wants, including in Iran and God knows where else.

It's Tonkin Gulf Junior.

Make no mistake about it. Saddam Hussein is a clear and present danger to civilization with the chemical and biological weapons he now possesses and the nuclear weapons he seeks to possess.

There is a straightforward method of toppling Saddam Hussein and doing it with overwhelming support in the U.N., including most Arab states:

The president would seek authority from the United Nations to enforce the 1991 and 1998 U.N. resolutions dealing with Iraq. The U.N. inspectors would have unfettered authority to inspect for chemical and biological weapons that Iraq surely possesses and nuclear weapons it seeks to possess. The inspectors would go in, and if Saddam Hussein denies them access to one of his palaces or some other sensitive place, the inspectors would depart.

President Bush would then have an alliance almost identical to what his father put together in 1991. Bush would be on solid ground following his father's precedent. The Security Council would then approve Bush's use of force once the inspectors have left.

As in most of his foreign policy decisions, Bush has decided to do it on his own. He is not going to follow the example of his father, who in some quarters was unfairly called a wimp. The current president will not give anyone reason to use the W word. He's the macho man from Texas. In a way, he is the flip side of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who machoed his way to election victory by keeping Germany out of a war. President Bush seeks to macho his way into a war.

Mr. President, George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "We learn from history that men never learn anything from history."

Prove that Shaw was wrong. Learn from history.

Follow your father's history.

In this instance at least, father knows best.

Thomas Eagleton is a former U.S. senator from Missouri who practices law in St. Louis.

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