Gulf of Tonkin Reprise? ACLU Questions Blanket Authority Granted by Proposed Iraq War Resolution

September 20, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Noting marked similarities with the tragic Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the American Civil Liberties Union today told Congress that the President’s proposed congressional resolution allowing the use of force to depose Saddam Hussein is too open-ended to be constitutional.

“The open-ended Gulf of Tonkin resolution – which is very similar to the President’s newly proposed Iraq resolution — allowed the ‘Commander-in-Chief’ to expand a small, regionalized police action in South Asia into the Vietnam War, an engagement that cost more than 50,000 American lives,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel.

“Congress needs to claim its leadership role in American war-making to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again,” Edgar added.

While neutral on whether to attack Iraq, the ACLU has for decades opposed any use of military force that is not officially sanctioned by the people’s representatives in Congress. It expressed specific concerns with the proposed Bush resolution in a letter to Congress today, which laid out specific shortcomings with the new resolution:

  • It does not specify who the U.S. is fighting. The proposed resolution actually opens the door to regional adventures in the Middle East. Under the language of the Bush resolution, the President could say he was able to, on his own initiative, invade Iran or Saudi Arabia or Israel, if he considered it to be necessary to “restore international peace and security to the region.” The language is similar to that in the Tonkin resolution that was used to justify the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos.
  • It does not spell out clear military objectives, allowing open-ended use of force. One of the most tragic lessons of the Vietnam War, the ACLU said in its letter, is the folly of sending troops into harm’s way without delineating the specific military objectives to be accomplished. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution allowed this by remaining vague in the war aims it set out, and the current Iraq resolution is equally vague. The draft resolution authorizes force “to defend . . . against the threat posed by Iraq” and to “restore international peace and security in the region.” Since there is no specific objective, there is no way to know when the authorization expires.
  • It abdicates war-making power to the President. As did the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the current resolution effectively cuts Congress out of decisions about the use of military force. Under the 1970 War Powers Act, Congress has ongoing prerogatives during any military engagement. The President only has sole authority during a sudden attack on U.S. soil.

The ACLU’s letter can be found at:

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