Gates: U.S. “Probably” Should Have Declared War on Iraq Before Launching It

Getting Congress to do so might have ended its growing “timid” role

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Robert Gates signs copies of his book at a Pentagon bookstore on Thursday.

Former defense secretary Robert Gates says Congress “probably” should have declared war on Iraq before invading in 2003, and added that it should do the same before any attack on Iran.

Gates, speaking at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast as part of the promotion tour for his just-published Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, said it is a way for Congress to re-establish its role in the nation’s most critical life-and-death decisions.

Time asked Gates the question, noting that in his former role as college president, he was familiar with elective courses. He smiled at a reference to the U.S. public—much like some busy college students who simply audit courses, without earning grades or credit—that merely audits the nation’s wars. Might a congressional declaration of war focus the nation’s mind on the challenges inherent in combat?

“I think that the hurdle for the use of military force, particularly in the absence of an immediate threat to the United States, imposed by requiring a congressional act, would not necessarily be a bad thing,” he said.

“I think the bar for preventive war ought to be very high,” he added. “Iraq was a preventive war. An attack on Iran today would be a preventive war.”

Gates began serving as defense secretary in late 2006 under President George W. Bush, three years after the Iraq war began. He continued in his Pentagon job under President Obama until June 2011, six months before the last U.S. troops left Iraq.

The one-time CIA chief also expressed leeriness over building a case for war, with Iraq or any other nation, based on intelligence reports. The key U.S. intelligence claim—that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction—proved to be unfounded. “I, perhaps better than almost anyone, am familiar with both the strengths and the weaknesses of U.S. intelligence,” he said. “And to make a decision to go to war purely on the basis of intelligence assessments—and absent a smoking gun—I think is a very `iffy’ matter.”

The war over going to war was papered over by the passage of 1973’s War Powers Resolution, which allows a President to wage war for 60 days before requiring a congressional authorization for the use of military force. President George W. Bush got such approval from Congress five months before invading Iraq. But such a resolution doesn’t carry the weight of a declaration of war, and lawmakers seem eager to avoid votes on such declarations.

“This is a place where I think the Congress ought to assert itself,” Gates said. “The irony is, I believe in recent years—and, coming from me, this is a strange thing to say—but one of the things that I lament is that, because of the changes in the Congress, I think they’ve become less important in the governance of the nation—they’ve weakened themselves in the decision-making process.”

Gates has criticized the willingness of the nation to go to war in recent decades. “We have so many other tools of American influence around the world, in addition to the military, and we always make the assumptions that the use of military force will be short, it will be over…and we’ll be done,” he said.

But that rarely happens—1991’s Gulf War being the most recent exception, he noted. “On these matters of war and peace,” Gates said, “I think that the Congress has been very timid.”

Was that a yes? Time asked again. Should the U.S. Congress have declared war on Iraq before committing 4,486 American lives and at least $1 trillion to the effort?

“You were asking me if the Congress should have declared war—should have been asked to declare war—on Iraq,” he said. “As I say, I hadn’t thought about it before—but my initial instinct in response is probably yes.”