The problem with the current debate over the exercise of presidential war powers in the Persian Gulf is that the more loudly Congress asserts its right to be consulted, the less credible becomes President Bush's threat to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait by force. Thus anti-war noises, in a perverse way, may well make war more likely.

If the Iraqi dictator begins to believe that congressional protests constitute a veto, he may try harder to wait out the blockade and hope that the coalition against him dissolves. That is not an argument for congressional silence. It is an argument for forethought and caution.Increasingly, in its skittishness congressional criticism of the Gulf buildup recalls the old nonsense song:

``Mother, may I go out to swim?'

``Yes, my darling daughter.

Hang your clothes on a hickory limb,

But don't go near the water!'

Congress has given George Bush overwhelming permission to swim. But the nearer he creeps to the water's edge of military action, the closer Congress comes to forbidding him to swim.

In the fashion of the television age, moreover, much of the advice from Capitol Hill has little to do with the pros and cons of war. Most of it takes the captious form of warnings that war is (as if the president didn't know it) very unpleasant, and that (as if the president didn't know this as well) the American people will not take it lightly if the boys start coming back from Saudi Arabia in ``body bags.'

The body bag, that gruesome image of Vietnam, has become the great anti-war symbol, and there is no doubt of its power. But such warnings are redundant and unhelpful, since they have more to do with the symbolic or psychological consequences of failure than with any clear calculation of national interest. They recall George F. Will's observation that if there had been television cameras at Antietam, the United States today would be two nations - or perhaps more.

If you believed congressional rhetoric, you would be forced to conclude that the choice before the nation is between the exercise of military power and the exercise of television's right to bring whatever it pleases to bring into our living rooms. And maybe, in fact, that would be an accurate appraisal of the actual choice.

Something else has changed, however. With the passing of the Cold War and the U.S.-Soviet confrontation, the balance of war powers is shifting back toward Congress - just as for the first 40 years of the atomic age it gravitated towards presidents.

So long as nuclear war was the paramount danger, and deterrence relied on instantaneous decision, the delegation of large discretion over war and peace to presidents was essential. Deterrence made no sense otherwise. Presidents tended, moreover, to stretch this mandate to include all sorts of situations in which the danger of nuclear confrontation was remote.

Now the high tide of presidential discretion is passing, and that plainly means more consultation with Congress. Of course, tactical surprise - especially in desert warfare - is important. But that advantage can hardly outweigh an explicit constitutional directive. And the directive is plain. Congress has the power to declare war.

Article I, however, does not say ``Congress alone...' nor does it explain how a ``commander in chief' can deploy a force which Congress declines to authorize. Which is why wise people do not regard the perennial argument over war powers, now or ever, as a clash of absolutes, in which one side or the other should or must prevail.

The real question today is not whether Congress has the power to declare war. Clearly it does. The question is whether Congress really wants to be asked to exercise it. That question was asked of Speaker Thomas Foley not long ago. The speaker described it as ``a very good question,' and declined - wisely, it may be - to answer it directly.

Another way of asking the question is this: Does Congress actually want to share the responsibility of a war decision in the Gulf? Or does it merely want to warn the president in vague terms while reserving its ancient right to praise success and attack failure?

At having it both ways on every vital issue, the Congress of the United States has no shortage of past masters.

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