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

Falling Up the Stairs

One should always be careful about what one wishes for, because one might just wind up with John Kerry as Secretary of State.
We ruefully admit that we hard ardently wished to see Hillary Clinton extricated from that post, even long before her inept involvement in the fiasco that led to the death of an ambassador and three other Americans in Libya on Sept. 11 or her scandalous behavior in the aftermath, and our wish was granted when she announced her long anticipated resignation. Then we wished that United Nations ambassador Susan Rice wouldn’t get the job, partly because of her own dissembling regarding the Libya deaths and partly because of everything else about her personality and foreign policy philosophy, and our luck continued when she withdrew her name from consideration rather than subject her president to weeks of damning headlines about Libya. We would have much preferred that she be denied the promotion after the weeks of damning headlines, all in a futile hope that the public could be convinced to care about the incompetence, dishonesty, and disregard for American principles that characterized the sordid affair, but by then our luck had run out.
Which leads us to the likely nomination of John Kerry, and his likely confirmation by his collegial colleagues in the Senate, and then on to the inevitable catastrophes that will result from his stewardship of the State Department.. Few things in life are reliable, but John Kerry has been wrong about every single foreign policy decision of his career.
The youngsters who only recall Kerry as the noble war hero who was “reporting for duty” as the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 2004 might not be aware that he first intruded into public life as the shaggy-haired leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Reasonable people will disagree about the wisdom of that group’s position, if not the haircut, but it is worth noting that Kerry was opposed not only to the Vietnam War but America’s resistance to communism. In Kerry’s now infamous testimony to the Senate in 1971, when he argued the people of South Vietnam had no opinion regarding what political and economic system they should live under, he scoffed at “the mystical war against communism” and added that “we cannot fight communism all over the world, and I think we should have learned that lesson by now.” With the sarcastic certainty of the young, which was so especially pronounced during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Kerry went onto dismiss the entire Cold War by sneering that “I think it is bogus, totally artificial. There is no threat. The communists are not about to take over our McDonald hamburger stands.”
Such insouciance about a totalitarian system that had hundreds of nuclear missiles pointed at the United States naturally earned Kerry one of Massachusetts’ seats in the Senate, where he continued to get the Cold War entirely wrong. He was not the least concerned about the Soviet Union establishing a puppet state in Nicaragua, and was one of the most outspoken critics of the Reagan administration’s covert effort to supply guns to a resistance movement there. Kerry has been less vocal about the current administration’s covert effort to supply guns to Mexican drug gangs, but that is another matter. The Senator also led the opposition to the war against another Soviet puppet state in Grenada, but because the war latest only a few moments the movement never gained much steam. A cheerleader for the European “nuclear freeze” movement that opposed Reagan’s introduction of short-range nuclear missiles to the continent, Kerry introduced a Comprehensive Nuclear Freeze Bill in 1985 and constantly fought against the Strategic Defense Initiative, notions he still clings to with a quaint nostalgia.
After the short-range missiles and so-called “star wars” program played a crucial role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and America’s complete triumph in the Cold War, Kerry turned his uncannily unreliable foreign policy knack to the new challenge of radical Islamism. He voted to authorize an invasion and occupation of Iraq, as did the person that Obama had previously chosen to be Secretary of State, but Kerry quickly resorted to his old ways and became an outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war right through the implementation of the ultimately successful “surge” strategy. Although reasonable people can disagree with Kerry’s vote for the war, as he does, there is little doubt that if America had pulled out at the time Kerry demanded it the results for both America and Iraq would not have been as satisfactory.
More recently, Kerry has been meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood and offering reassurances that they’re really a very peaceable and democratic lot. Subsequent events in Egypt have proved otherwise, of course, but given Kerry’s history the outcome was drearily predictable. We suppose it should have been predictable, too, that such an unblemished record of wrongness would culminate in Kerry becoming the Secretary of State.

— Bud Norman