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Remember the Maine!

DURING a tense international political crisis between the United States and another nation, the President orders a US warship into a potentially hostile body of water. The ship's mission is described variously as protection of friends and protection of US interests, but is essentially to show the flag and maintain a US presence. The President is confident that any risks are minimized by fear of US resolve and naval might. Although the US is not at war with any nation, it feels increasingly bitter toward one country. While that country seeks to avoid a war, it also resents the presence of the US warship nearby. For several weeks tensions mount. Finally, one morning the US wakes to learn that two massive and mysterious explosions - probably mines - have reduced half of the warship to twisted steel. A numbing 260 US sailors are dead. Was it deliberate, and if so, who attacked? This remains a mystery, but the US choice is clear - humiliation or vengeance. Outraged US citizens demand vengeance. The President soon asks Congress to declare war, which it does.

If this sounds unlikely, remember the Maine and events 90 years ago in Cuba's Havana Harbor. Even now historians do not know with certainty if it was attacked by Spaniards resentful of a US warship in waters they claimed, sabotaged by some Cubans to create war between the US and Spain, or destroyed by an accidental explosion in its coal bunkers. What is known clearly is that Congress declared war amid hysterical calls for revenge and a wish to avoid humiliation. We should try to prevent a repetition of history.

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What the US needs now is a policy that preserves US strength, but allows US flexibility. Under current circumstances Congress would have little flexibility in case of a tragedy. This is not how the Founding Fathers intended it. James Madison said: ``The Constitution supposes what the history of governments demonstrates, that the executive is the branch of power most interested in wars and most prone to it. It has accordingly, with studied care, vested this question in the legislature.''

The flagging of Kuwaiti ships, ordered by President Reagan, puts the US in a situation where other countries or people may for their own reasons require the US to choose between humiliation or war. The Constitution empowers Congress, not the president, to decide whether or not the nation should go to war. If the President had consulted Congress, the US would not have reflagged these ships, because the action is not clearly in its best interests.

Nothing can be more important to the US than prevention of a needless war. The public is uneasy with the administration's reflagging plan. A Harris poll, taken in July before the Bridgeton hit a mine, found that US citizens believed by a margin of 58 to 35 that the reflagging plan was not worth the risk to its personnel. Those polled were told that if the US refused to reflag Kuwait's ships, the Soviets might do it instead.

The US does, of course, have the right to keep the sea lanes open and has exercised that right since the days of the Barbary pirates off the shores of Tripoli. As chairman of the Seapower Subcommittee of the House Armed Service Committee, I have helped lead the fight in Congress for a strong, 600-ship Navy. We should use that Navy to protect US interests anywhere. But the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers does not add to US power to keep the sea lanes open; it only allows somebody else to control the destiny of this nation. The US is putting a chip on its shoulder.

The execution of this unwise policy also appears flawed. The recently reorganized Joint Chiefs of Staff structure does not seem to have been very helpful in this case. For whatever reason, the obvious failure to prepare, evidenced by the lack of minesweepers on the scene, is something probably as much the fault of the new Joint Chiefs system, which stifles dissent, as of any human error. Any able-bodied seaman would know that where there are mines there should be minesweepers, absent any overriding time factor.

The US now should reassert its position in favor of keeping the sea lanes open, adding whatever forces may be required, such as minesweeping and Aegis-type destroyers.

But the US should also give firm notice that, unless joined in effective international sanctions and an arms embargo against recalcitrant Iran, it will reassess its dangerous reflagging policy; that policy could get the US into an unwanted war in which its losses could be great.

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It is time to return to the Constitution and let Congress decide whether or not this nation will go to war.

Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D) of Florida is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of its Subcommittee on Seapower.

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