The Senate vote this week on AWACS compares to the vote on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution 17 years ago. For the upcoming vote is being portrayed by the Reagan administration not only as sanction for increased United States military involvement abroad but as a referendum on presidential latitude in foreign affairs. And a vote sustaining the President's position will undercut congressional controls imposed in response to the growth of unilateral executive authority in the Vietnam years.
The last time a president rejected the principle of congressional involvement in foreign affairs was in 1973. At that time, President Nixon opposed the War Powers Act, legislation which imposed limitations on previously abused presidential authority to commit US forces overseas.
In 1974 and 1975, Congress moved to assert its authority in a new area: the dangers attending the burgeoning and indiscriminate sales of military weapons, particularly in spurring arms races rather than promoting stability in the Middle East. The Arms Export Control Act was enacted, entitling Congress to disapprove major military sales 30 days after being notified. A year later, Congress strengthened the law to allow for a 20-day informal negotiation period - thus preventing the executive branch from presenting faits accompli, leaving no room for congressional input into the configuration of the sale.
Such assertion of congressional authority, though recent in the post-World War II era, is constitutionally sanctioned and has been much exercised in United States history. In fact, at various times during the 19th century, Congress so frequently entered the realm of questioning executive action in the international arena that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was euphemistically referred to as the ''Department of Foreign Relations.'' In 1871, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles Sumner was actually deposed by the Senate in a move to assuage the bruised feelings of President Grant and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. And, in this century, the Congress has played important roles in the development of foreign assistance programs, the United Nations, and mutual defense agreements.
In the era beginning with World War II, however, the authority of the executive branch has expanded enormously. For various national crises have combined with the awesome revolutions in military technology to increase Congress's - and the free world's - reliance upon the executive branch for developing appropriate national responses and maintaining national and free world security.
''Decisiveness'' in a world increasingly dependent upon the US has logically evolved into a precious commodity. Unfortunately, the consolidation of power and the premium placed on decisiveness led to another natural evolutionary product, the so-called imperial presidency. So, in the aftermath of Vietnam, after a long period of quiescence on matters related to foreign policy, Congress again began to assert its long-neglected role in its relationship with the president.
The tenacity of the AWACS opposition has indicated the depth of congressional concern over the sale of this technology to unstable areas, such as Saudi Arabia. What we have seen is the utilization of Vietnam's legislative legacy spurred by congressional determination to avoid repeating the mistakes of US experience in Iran.
To President Reagan, however, the pendulum has swung too far in the post-Vietnam era. In portraying the AWACS vote as a referendum on presidential authority and prestige, the President has blurred the distinction between himself and the office. Congress has progressed a long way since it accepted uncritically the dictates of a president. Mr. Reagan's failure to grasp the changes in Congress was nowhere more apparent than in his assembly of previous secretaries of state, secretaries of defense, and national security advisers in support of the AWACS sale. For among these were men responsible for motivating Congress to institute the new controls: men exercising power in the Vietnam and Iran years.
There is no need to say that the AWACS situation involves many other issues, such as Saudi security and an assured supply of oil. But no less important - to Congress and the American people - is the issue of whether they really want to step back toward an imperial presidency.