As a nation America is now engaged in a debate about a potential full scale war with the islamofascist group ISIS. At its face there is little debate that ISIS is a modern manifestation of evil with social media savvy which must be eliminate before it gets to the point where such elimination is either not possible or has caused damage that will make the events of 9/11 seem tame. This post is not going to debate the virtuous goal of wiping the ISIS infection from the planet but rather the political dance currently going on and the widespread political cowardness being demonstrated in Washington. Let’s be fair, there are some who have taken well thought out policy positions, at considerable political risk. Senator Rand Paul favoring very restrictive use of force to Senator Lindsey Graham who favors a virtually unlimited authority for fight the Islamofascists. Then there are the fast majority of politicians who are desperately trying to hide from being the ones to make the decision to send America back to the Mideast in what is almost certain to end up another large ground war. No one epitomizes this more than former Secretary of State and presumptive Democrat nominee for President Hillary Clinton who seems to be using a “Grandma Strategy” to be avoiding any public statements on the largest foreign policy debate of the election cycle and which emerged in large part as a result of the policy of the State Department she led. We are not going to debate the policy positions today but rather the growing game of political hot potato being played. It’s almost spring in Washington and the Yellow Back flowers of Capital Hill and the White House are in full bloom.
Dating back to the administration of our first President George Washington, the Constitution has provided ample opportunity for confusion over the requisite authority needed for the United States to wage war. This is not entirely accidental as during the constitutional convention which drafted the Constitution, the delegated debated the same core issue we are today, the respective powers of the Executive Branch personified by the President and the Legislative being Congress. At the time the debate and the resultant compromise was less of an imperative as waging a war in the 18th Century was a relatively time consuming process of raising an Army and or Navy and then dispatching it into harm’s way. Short of an enemy fleet arriving on our shore without notice, an event which would clearly result in war, there was time to work the process to resolution. The founding Fathers could never have anticipated our world where wars are fought in real time. Just imaging George Washington’s reaction to a B-2 crew who after breakfast with their family near their bases in the heartland go to work, board one of the most power weapon systems ever developed, take off and several refuelings later bomb targets in the middle east and then turn around and after a few more refuelings land back home just about a day later. This is a challenge for which the constitution was not written.
First let’s understand the inherent constitutional conflict. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 clearly gives Congress the power to declare war. Additionally the same section specifically gives power to the Congress to establish, provide for and maintain a Navy and Land Forces of the United States. It actually reads rather clear. The complicating factor is Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1 which makes the elected President the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces (thus clearly establishing civilian control). Now in the late 18th century this kind of made sense as Congress could have lots of time to debate while the President readied his forces to execute any Declaration of War which Congress may ultimately issue. They never envisioned the military technology of today which has made war fighting real time but more importantly they never envisioned the television camera in the 24 hour news cycle. Get ready your hair care products and makeup, congress is ready to debate; well at least a few members.
Yet for all the complexity assumed to be the foundation of the modern debate, simply reading the constitution, word for word, a few times seems to indeed provide much clarity. Congress has the sole power to declare war and once declared the President has the authority to carry out that war. Now the real issue is that congress is totally unwilling to step up and declare war. The last formal declaration of war by the United States was June 5, 1942 when a declaration was passed by unanimous votes of both houses against Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. Those actions we fought since the Korean, Vietnam, Gulf War (1991), Afghanistan and Iraq as well as number of smaller conflicts have been fought with some ad hoc form of congressional resolution. Presidents, with the possible exception of the current, have been more than willing to pick up the ball congress has dropped. In 1973 congress passed the War Powers Resolution which became law over the veto of a Watergate weakened Richard Nixon. However a core element of that legislation is the ability of congress within 30 days to vote to end conflicts is the so called congressional veto. That mechanism was declared unconstitutional in 1983 (INS v Chadha) and thus most likely would not have any weight today, other than political. The result is a brain numbing debate that occurs every time we face an international threat and always results in some overly vague (think Gulf of Tonkin) congressional dribble.
Today’s Debate over ISIS
Leaving the merits of the conflict with ISIS aside for this discussion, it seems like the debate we are in, as the great 20th century philosopher Yogi Berra said “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” President Obama is showing no leadership and we are engaging in mission creep chillingly reminiscent of Vietnam. After waiting two years and not intervening until it seemed like the Iraq government was about to fall, the President unilaterally launched an air war only with commitment to not put American boots on the ground. Within a month he authorized up to 300 advisors and targeting support personal. Within months we had up to 3,000 advisors. Here we go again. One of the core lessons we took away from Vietnam was never to go to war without a clear mission and a commitment by the people by way of the Congress to achieve that mission. Let there be no doubt young American men and women in uniform are going to die fighting ISIS. The insanely barbaric of a Jordanian pilot captured after his aircraft was shot down is just a preview. Another lesson of Vietnam is an AK47 can bring down multi-million dollar jets. Every member of congress should be required, without cameras to play up to, to go to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington before this congressional circus goes any further. Having been to the memorial numerous times, there is something haunting about the more than 58,000 names etched in the black granite. Brave young Americans who answered their country’s call and their days cut tragically short. The one lesson congress must take from this is they need to step up and meet their constitutional responsibility.
Like Vietnam 50 years ago, we face a conflict where the only certainty about its future is uncertainty. We must, congress and the American people, make a decision to either engage ISIS with the full weight of American military power or walk away and let regional powers resolve the problem in some way. Life is about the choices we make; choices and their consequences. If we engage there will be a major war and American lives will be lost. Those losses will occur on the battlefield, in the air above and most likely in the homeland as ISIS will bring the fight to America in some form. If we walk away we likely will have to deal with a world with an ISIS controlled state, the size and nature of we can hardly imagine. Congress must make a choice, the President most certainly will not.
For me in this debate, as it has for the last 226 years the Constitution provided clear guidance. The Congress must either pass a clear and unrestricted Declaration of War. The President must then either sign that declaration and then fight the resulting war with vigor to victory or veto the declaration. Decisions must be made, forget politics and ignore perceived places in history. Look into the eyes of late teens and early twenty something men and women who will be called upon in one way or another to pay the price of that decision, or worse, indecision. They deserve leaders who lead, not elected cowards who hide within the Beltway. Those young men and women will show extraordinary courage if called upon just as previous generations have and continue to in Afghanistan. Congress and the President must show political courage that pales in comparison and make a choice. Just as importantly the American people much stand and be counted. Cowboy up.