WASHINGTON — Could it be that it was all so simple then?

The last time the United States Congress declared war, it did so in one brief paragraph. It directed President Franklin D. Roosevelt to use “the entire naval and military forces” to defeat the enemy and pledged “all of the resources of the country” to the effort.

War has become complicated since 1941. We no longer have wars, in fact.

We have “conflicts” or “military actions” or “peacekeeping missions” or “enforcement actions.” In Iraq, we started with the October 2002 “authorization for use of military force” against Saddam Hussein’s regime for allegedly threatening the U.S. with its alleged weapons of mass destruction, and for defying various United Nations resolutions. American involvement in this war has exceeded World War II in its duration — fitting, perhaps, for a conflict that started with a resolution no mere paragraph in length, but six pages long.

The muddying of the constitutional separation of war-making powers — they’re divided between the president and Congress — went on and on through the Cold War and has continued long after its end. Now we careen toward a constitutional showdown.

President Bush does not see in November’s election a public mandate to change course in Iraq. He does not regard the public will, or the expression of it that comes through the new Democratic Congress, as impinging on what he takes to be his unfettered prerogatives as commander in chief. He is escalating the U.S. military commitment in Iraq despite bipartisan opposition. “I made my decision and we’re going forward,” Bush said Sunday night on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

This clipped statement of presidential defiance comes after a more explicit enunciation of White House thinking, delivered last week by spokesman Tony Snow. “Congress has the power of the purse,” Snow correctly pointed out. “The president has the ability to exercise his own authority if he thinks Congress has voted the wrong way.”

This notion would no doubt surprise the Founders, as it should anyone who believes the United States is a democracy.

“I think this was the issue that was decided at Lexington and Concord,” says Michael J. Glennon, a professor of international law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a former counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The colonists rejected a system in which “If the king believes that parliament is wrong, the king may do what he wishes.”

The autocratic impulse of the Bush administration, long on display and for just as long ignored by the Republicans when they controlled Capitol Hill, now faces its first genuine test. Democrats and Republicans opposed to Bush’s troop escalation have yet to agree on a way to constrain his monarchical tendency. The Constitution gives Congress the power to “raise and support Armies” as well as to “make rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.”

Vice President Dick Cheney is dismissive. You can’t “run a war by committee,” he declares — though the Constitution envisioned something like that by giving only Congress the power to declare war and to raise the money for it.

In reality, the sole way for Congress to halt the new Iraq troop deployment — a cutoff of funds for any additional soldiers — already is being thwarted by the White House. Movements necessary for the mobilization are under way; money to support these additional soldiers was included in last year’s defense spending bill, officials say. It was one of only two routine spending bills the Republicans managed to pass before adjourning last fall.

None of these maneuvers should surprise. The Bush White House treats legitimate misgivings and uncertainties about deepening the military involvement in Iraq precisely the way the Bush campaign treated the legitimate misgivings and uncertainties about the 2000 Florida vote: by attempting to shut down any process that might result in Bush failing to get his way.

As they did in Florida, the president’s men are likely to win the short-term contest. The money is already in the pipeline, they say; the commander in chief commands troop movements at will.

The only way to stop this is, quite literally, to declare war. The original Iraq resolution effectively declared war on Saddam, who is no longer with us, and demanded compliance with U.N. sanctions that no longer apply. As Glennon has pointed out — and to use an appropriately Nixonian phrase — the old war resolution is inoperable. Let’s have a new one that voids it, and allows for the withdrawal of troops who have, after all, already accomplished the mission of 2002.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.

Copyright 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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