Why the Constitution Matters in Military Affairs
Week after week it’s easy for me to blog with compelling arguments that most things Congress does is unconstitutional. But, up until about two years ago with the advent of Ron Paul’s Freedom Revolution and last year’s birth of the Tea Partiers, most Americans would have said, so what if something is unconstitutional? That document is outdated and irrelevant. These are modern times with issues unimaginable to the Founders. Nonsense, the eternal truths contained in the U.S. Constitution are as relevant today as they were in the 1700s.
Take making war for instance. Article 1 Section 8 gives Congress, not the president, the power to declare war. In that same section, Congress has the power to finance the endeavor. Since the end of World War II, the clause pertaining to declaring war in the Constitution, like many others, has been almost totally ignored by both the Congress and president. Additionally, Congress has rarely if ever invoked its power to restrain presidential power by controlling the purse strings of the military during times of war. The consequences have been horrendous.
In the 1960s and 1970s it led to an 11 year war in Southeast Asia. Instead of a declaration of war the military action was justified on the basis of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed in 1964. The resolution gave President Johnson the authorization to do whatever was necessary in order to assist “any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty.” This vague and open ended wording led to much criticism of the president and his Secretary of Defense over how they conducted the war. Specifically, President Nixon’s expanding of it to include the bombing of Cambodia made an already unpopular war almost an event that tore the country in two. It also led to over 50,000 American and countless Southeast Asian lives being lost. The conflict ended in defeat for the U.S. and spending for the war caused high inflation which hurt American households, facilitated our manufacturing base to move overseas, and eventually brought on problems like the Savings and Loan crisis.
In current times we find ourselves mired in two conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. To be sure, Congress did not declare war in either circumstance. For Afghanistan, it passed a resolution authorizing the president to use all “necessary and appropriate force” against those whom he determined “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the September 11th attacks, or who harbored said persons or groups. For Iraq, the resolution authorized the president to use the Armed Forces of the United States “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate” in order to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding Iraq.”
It seems like Washington never learns from its mistakes. Again, loosely worded resolutions instead of firm declarations with a narrow objective allowed President Bush to abuse his powers by spying on Americans, holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay indefinitely, and expand the bombing to include other countries other than Afghanistan and Iraq, namely Pakistan. In addition to over 1 million Iraqi and Afghani deaths from the main theaters of war, 1 in 3 people killed in the expanded bombings of Pakistan have been civilians.
Because Washington has not followed the eternal truth that war should be entered into and conducted carefully, our government is primarily responsible for the destabilization of the Middle East. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that because of the threats of invasion that came from the previous administration and with American military might all around it Iran is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. Even though Saddam was a vile and ruthless tyrant his Iraq acted as a counterweight to Iran. Today, Iraq is in chaos and if U.S. forces do ever leave it will be ripe for a takeover by Islamic extremists.
A Republican Congress unfortunately did not deny George W. Bush the ability to launch an unjust war on Iraq based on lies, misinformation and his desire to avenge Saddam Hussein for allegedly sending a hit squad to assassinate his father. One man made the decision to start the war in which Americans would die and hundreds of billions of dollars would be spent. This was not the intent of the Founders who were wise enough to give the powers of declaring wars and financing them to the Congress. The Founders gave them to Congress because it is a deliberative body that represents the many viewpoints of Americans. These viewpoints, like in the enactment of laws, place a check and balance on the solitary power of the president. Congress has abdicated this constitutional power and consequently has propped up an imperial presidency – something the Founders, other than Hamilton and Adams, would have vehemently rebelled against.
In 2006 the Democrats took back control of Congress with a pledge to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For a time there was hope that they would restore the constitutional balance of power in war making. They simply could have done this by cutting funding for the wars. But instead, Congress continues to finance the wars and in fact has gone along with President Obama’s wishes to continue funding bombings in Pakistan and to escalate the war in Afghanistan – so much for the hope that Congress would exert control over the powers granted to it and rein in the powers usurped by the president.
Wars are costly both in terms of human life and monetary expense. Unless an attack on U.S. soil is imminent, Congress must retain its constitutional power to declare war and use its authority over funding it to limit the president’s actions. By not following these constitutional mandates we have become a militaristic society almost constantly at war in adventures far beyond what the Founders envisioned. This has caused a drain on our families, our finances, and our country’s reputation in the world. Fortunately, many Americans are finally waking up to this reality.
Kenn Jacobine teaches internationally and maintains a summer residence in North Carolina.