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An open letter to Harold Ford Jr.


I think you know the high regard in which I hold you, both personally and as an extraordinarily effective spokesman for the interests of Tennessee's Ninth Congressional District in the House of Representatives. I must, however, express my serious disappointment with the vote you cast October 11th, along with 82 other House Democrats, in favor of authorizing President Bush to use military force, if necessary, to compel Iraq to disband its "weapons of mass destruction" programs.

As an individual citizen and voter, I was deeply disappointed to find your name on the list of those House Democrats who chose to abandon constitutional precedent to vote in favor of the Bush administration's war agenda. Personally, I am troubled by the fact that a unilateral military removal of Saddam Hussein might reverberate around the world like "a reverse Pearl Harbor," a phrase used first by another Democrat, Robert F. Kennedy, in explaining why his brother's administration chose not to launch a pre-emptive strike against Cuba in 1962.

But honorable men can disagree honorably about what should be done about the lunatic Saddam. What they cannot and should not disagree about, however, is the constitutional means required to do whatever we decide, as a nation, to do. And that, sir, is where I think your vote on this matter did a disservice to us, your constituents.

You are surely aware that the Founding Fathers were utterly, completely unambiguous in their intent as to which branch of government exercises the power to declare war: Article One, Section Eight of the U.S. Constitution clearly gives that power to Congress, not the president. The language could not be more direct.

That formidable, frightening power has been evoked, in the past, only when another country has acted in unprovoked fashion against us: Japan, for example, which attacked our Pacific fleet in 1941. On other occasions, in Korea in 1950 and, more recently, against Iraq in 1991, we have taken military action as leaders of United Nations peacekeeping coalitions in which we were fully partnered with that international organization and where we, the United States, were not declaring war on anyone but simply acting with our neighbors to preserve world peace.

But in this case, President Bush has received a blank check to do whatever he wishes in Iraq. This, Congressman Ford, is simply not right. Not that any of us think that Saddam Hussein is a friend of America or anything less than an enormous threat to international stability. "Everybody knows he is a brutal dictator," said the late Paul Wellstone on the Senate floor just two weeks ago. "That is not the point. The point is how to proceed, how to do this the right way ."

Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, a 40-year Senate veteran whose reputation as an archetype of Southern conservatism has rarely been questioned, had the same severe reservations about the constitutionality of the Bush war-powers measure as Wellstone. "Congress must not attempt to give away the authority to determine when war is to be declared," he said in the same debate. "We must not allow any president to unleash the dogs of war at his own discretion and for an unlimited period of time. Yet that is what we are being asked to do. The judgment of history will not be kind to us if we take this step."

Yet, sadly, that step was taken. Although the views expressed above are entirely my own and not those of The Memphis Flyer, I would point out that more than a few of our staff share my sentiments, as do, interestingly, an overwhelming segment of our readers, at least those who participated in our weekly Internet "Buzz Poll" on the subject. (Readers participating in that poll, published in our October 10th issue, rejected the measure you supported 75 percent to 25 percent.)

I hope you keep our views -- my own and a considerable portion of your constituency -- in mind as we face the difficult international situation before us. Thank you for reading this.

Kenneth Neill is the publisher of The Memphis Flyer.

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