W A S H I N G T O N, Aug. 29, 2002 -- If President Bush takes military action against Iraq, he says it would be a pre-emptive strike against a future threat to the United States — a doctrine he defended nearly three months ago at West Point.
"We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best," Bush told graduating cadets on June 1. "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long."
Some legal scholars say such an attack would be unprecedented — a violation of the U.N. charter and a reversal of nearly 200 years of U.S. policy of acting only in response to an attack or the immediate threat of an attack.
"The president is trying to expand the notion of an armed attack into a possibility of a pre-emptive strike," says Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale University. "That's a tremendous stretch."
White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez has told Bush that, based on his constitutional powers as commander in chief, he has all the legal authority he needs to launch an anticipatory strike.
While the Constitution gives Congress the sole authority to declare war, it has done so only five times in the nation's history. In every other instance — more than 120 — the president has acted alone.
In addition, White House lawyers argue an attack on Iraq is already authorized by:
the 1991 congressional resolution authorizing military action in the Persian Gulf War; and last year's resolution authorizing the use of force against those behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
The administration, though, has yet to offer any evidence that Iraq was involved in the terror attacks.
Power of the Purse
On Capitol Hill, even some Republicans say they are not persuaded by Gonzalez's position.
"That is a significant leap here," says Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a leading voice within the GOP on foreign affairs. "I think if the White House tries to use that argument, they're going to get themselves in a lot of trouble, and I would advise them not to try to make that case."
Even if Bush acts without congressional approval, lawmakers say they have the definitive power — the power of the purse.
"That gives Congress enough of a say — really the ultimate say," says Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, the chairman, of the House International Relations Committee. "If we don't like something, we just don't fund it."