By David Shribman

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The Republican Congress has rarely seen a war it didn't want to fight. Affirmative action? Straight to the front lines. Taxes? Full mobilization. The budget? Bombs away. Welfare? Ditto. But now, with real bombs over Belgrade, the Republicans have become conscientious objectors in Washington's real war. Presidents often complain that Congress consists of 535 commanders-in-chief. Not this time. Most of the junior officers have gone AWOL, treating the war in Yugoslavia as if it's radioactive. Their calculation: Get too close, and they'll be contaminated.

Given Congress' abiding distrust of Clinton, which has only grown since he was impeached, lawmakers are content to portray the contra-Serbian sorties as the Clinton-Gore war, just as the War of 1812 was Mr. Madison's war and Vietnam was Johnson's--until, of course, it became Nixon's. If the conflict drags on, if Americans begin dying and if ground troops get caught up in a quagmire, that strategy could prove to be a good gamble--although then there's the possibility that Clinton's war will become, say, President George W. Bush's bloody mess.

On the other hand, if the U.S. and its allies eventually drive Slobodan Milosevic from power, permit the Kosovars to return to their homeland, and bring peace to the Balkans, Republicans for a generation will be asked: What did you do in the great humanitarian war?

The hard truth is that the Founding Fathers intended Congress, not the president, to declare war, a role that was formalized in the War Powers Act during the Nixon years. But no president, including Clinton, has ever acknowledged the legitimacy of the War Powers Act, and no president, including Clinton, has conformed with its provisions. Still, this is the first time the Congress hasn't even tried to assert itself.

The crusade for Kosovo has turned all of Washington's isms into wasms. The president and the Democrats, onetime peaceniks, are prosecuting the Balkan war with brio. Many Republicans, onetime hard-liners, are zealots for peace; the other day it seemed as if GOP leader Trent Lott might actually begin humming, "Give peace a chance." The only exception is Senator John McCain of Arizona, an ex-POW whose blunt support for the war has pumped some badly needed oxygen into his presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, the great din you hear from Capitol Hill is the sound of Congress guarding its prerogatives. "If the president decides the U.S. should go to war, we should be involved,'' says Senator Jim Bunning, the Kentucky Republican. Representative Deborah Pryce, an Ohio Republican, adds, "We're the ones who have to go back and face these folks, and see how war relates to the people on a personal level." That's the theory. The reality is that congressional Republicans find Clinton so distasteful that they're unwilling to align with him militarily or diplomatically.

DAVID SHRIBMAN is the Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe and a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter.