On the Power to Wage War

The House of Representatives voted Thursday along mostly party lines to restrict President Donald Trump’s authority to wage war with Congress’ consultation and approval, and there’s a chance a few Republicans will join all the Democrats in the Senate to pass it in that chamber. One can only wonder what the vote would have been if a similar resolution had been offered four or five years ago when President Barack Obama was in office.
Our guess is that script would have been flipped. Back then the Republicans mostly hewed to high-minded constitutional principles about Congress’ sole authority to declare war, while even the most principled peaceniks of the Democratic party were willing indulge Obama’s frequent drone strikes at terrorist targets. Both parties’ opinions about an imperial presidency are contingent on which currently occupies the White House.
We would have voted to restrict presidential war-making powers back then, we’d do so again today if only we were in the Senate, and we much admire the few congressional Republicans willing to incur Trump’s “twitter” wrath with their intellectual consistency. Perhaps some of the Democrats who crossed party lines on Thursday to vote against the resolution also deserve our begrudging respect, but we notice most of them will soon be running for reelection in districts where Trump has a net approval rating.
There are reasonable arguments for granting a president broad authority as Commander-in-Chief, and the Republicans are using them all, just as the Democrats would have done four or five years ago. All of the reasonable arguments for not giving any one person the power to start a war are still sound, though, even if the modern Democratic party has no standing to make them.
When the founders gave Congress sole authority to declare war there were no intercontinental nuclear missiles that could hit an American target faster than Congress can convene, but it’s long been congressionally-sanctioned American policy to immediately nuke to extinction any country rash enough to lob a nuke at us. Congress hasn’t declared war on anybody since World War II, but it had the chance to give its constitutional advice and consent to military actions in Korea and Vietnam and Grenada and Nicaragua and various other hot spots around the world, with mixed results. The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 ushered in a new era of national security challenges, but Congress deliberated and passed sweeping expansions of domestic intelligence and police powers, and before he went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq President George W. Bush went to Congress with the votes of numerous Democrats, including two future Democratic presidential nominees and the man who’s now considered the front-runner for the next Democratic nomination.
All of those Democrats now rue their vote for the Iraq War, and the current Republican president falsely claims that he was against it all along and that his Republican predecessor lied us into the whole mess based on flawed intelligence reports. When he was a reality show star Trump also confidently predicted on “twitter” and “YouTube” that Obama would lie America into a war with Iran as the only to win reelection, with both claims proving false. Now he’s asking the country to trust him and his intelligence reports that his decision to kill Iran’s second-highest-ranking without bothering to notify even the most senior members of Congress’ intelligence and military committees, and most of the Republicans are predictably going along while most of the Democrats are balking.
As we judge it the Republicans would have had the better case for restricting presidential war powers four or five years ago, so for principled reasons we’ll swallow our Republican pride and admit the Democrats have an even stronger case this time around. The administration and its more legal apologists in the conservative media are arguing that Trump acted under the Bush-era authorization, but at this point that’s quite a stretch, especially with a Republican president who still claims it was based on lies. The numerous drone strikes Obama ordered had more to do with the fall out from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and for the most part they killed dangerous terrorists without starting any new conflicts. We didn’t much trust that Obama fellow, but neither do we have any faith whatsoever in Trump’s honesty and selflessness, and we believe that no one man should be empowered to wage war.
We first became aware of the wider world after President Lyndon Johnson cajoled Congress to pass the dubiously based Gulf of Tonkin resolution and commenced the Vietnam War in bloody earnest, and although it was arguably a noble effort and the American resolve it showed eventually won the wider Cold War, nobody thinks it ended well. Our unpopular theory is that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars will eventually be seen by as having demonstrated the American resolve that has largely contained the Islamist terror threat and seems headed toward ultimate victory in a century or so, but for now both parties repudiate the efforts and accuse one another of treason.
So far as we can tell from decades of reading the newspapers and history books, no leader has ever successfully prosecuted a war without the widespread and bipartisan support of his country. President Richard Nixon was ultimately forced by public opinion to accept a “peace with honor” in Vietnam that came awry after he resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal and the Democrats used their congressional majorities to withhold military aid from our erstwhile South Vietnamese allies. Bush’s congressionally-authorized but still controversial decision to invade Iraq might well have yielded positive results after he defied public opinion and ordered an effective “surge” of troops, but Obama’s premature withdrawal doomed that. Obama’s drone-happy anti-terrorism efforts were mostly fine by us but did not endear him to his party and did little to diminish its soft-on-terrorism reputation among Republicans.
So far Trump’s simultaneous promises of withdrawing America from the world stage while building up the military and its troop levels in the Middle East and other hot spots around the world are playing well with his base of voters, but he’s enraged all the damned Democrats, bewildered the longtime allies he’s disparaged and is now urging to take America’s place, and even lost some Republican support, even in Congress.
Trump might yet retain his imperial powers on the basis of some flimsy arguments and a slim but veto-proof Republican majority in the Senate, but we’d advise him not to use them. If worse comes to worst he’ll need to persuade a nation that action is urgently required based on the best possible information, and at this point he can’t persuasively argue “trust me.”

— Bud Norman

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