I’m sure that a few of the more persistent trolls around here won’t believe this, but a lot of the times I don’t think in terms of “Bush” and “Reid” and “Pelosi” and “Democrats” and “Republicans,” but rather of “the president” and “Congress.” I have no problem separating out the purely political from the institutional, Constitutional aspect of matters.
And it’s in that latter mode that I have to say that Senator James Webb’s bill (now endorsed by Hillary Clinton) is one of the most profoundly stupid and fundamentally unconstitutional measures to come down the pike since the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance act.
In the Constitution, foreign policy is clearly the purview of the president. Congress’ role is advisory and after-the-fact, limited to confirming ambassadors, ratifying treaties, and declaring war. It is the president’s right and duty to take the initiative when it comes to foreign relations. And for decades, that was sufficient.
After World War II, though, things changed a bit. Increases in technology — both military and communications — had made the leisurely pace of “no waging war until Congress has had time to debate and vote” untenable. The precise role of Congress was debated back and forth, and it concluded with the 1973 War Powers Act.
It should be noted that every president has stated that the War Powers Act is unconstitutional, but not challenged it in court. Likewise, Congress has cited it only in the context of “…consistent with” instead of “…pursuant to” in resolutions and acts, to avoid a confrontation over the Act that neither side has been willing to risk.
(A mistake, I think, as leaving it as an “agree to disagree” situation is merely postponing the problem. Leaving it unsettled, with the president rejecting its authority while complying with it anyway, is just stupid. But I digress.)
But under the terms of the Act, the president can initiate hostilities on his own initiative, and continue them for up to 60 days, without Congressional approval. All he needs to do is notify Congress within 48 hours (tell them, not ask them), and then report back every six months or so. Further, he has to end the fighting within 60 days of any report date if Congress does not give its permission to continue.
(No, the War Powers Act does NOT apply in Iraq. Congress passed its Authorization for the Use of Military Force before the president ordered the attack and invasion, making the War Powers Act irrelevant in this case.)
So Webb’s bill is a violation of the spirit of the War Powers Act. That’s not enough in and of itself, though, since the War Powers Act’s authority has never been fully accepted. Does it have any other problems?
The great military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz noted that “war is an extension of diplomacy by other means.” It is the “big stick” Theodore Roosevelt spoke of, the ultimate expression of our commitment and resolve, and — in some cases — the only reason the United States is respected. There are people and governments who respect naught else but military force. Appeals to humanity, decency, or economics, or self-interest are shrugged off by such. In those cases, only the expression that “if you do that, we will pound you into dust” tends to get more attention than “if you do that, we will scold you and think poorly of you and give you less money.”
Iran, I fear, is one of those nations. Indeed, they have made it abundantly clear that they will not yield to more conventional means of dissuasion from their current actions.
And what are their current actions? Well, for one, they are actively fomenting the fighting inside Iran. Active members of their military elite are operating inside Iraq, supplying materiel, training, intelligence, funding, and other active assistance to those groups currently killing both our troops and civilians. They seized a British boat in Iraq waters, taking British sailors and marines hostage and using them as propaganda tools before releasing them. They are also pursuing nuclear weapons, and have stated that they have no compunctions about using them. They are subsidizing the terrorist group Hezbollah, which controls large swathes of Lebanon and threatens the legitimate government of that nation while it wages its war against our ally Israel. And they have openly declared that they want to see Israel “wiped off the earth.”
In that context, Webb’s bill would take off the table the military option in the president’s ability to deal with Iran. It would, in effect, be a unilateral “non-aggression treaty” towards Iran, assuring them that they can act without fear of retaliation without a single concession from them in return. And it would be a treaty not only not negotiated by the president, but not negotiated at all — simply a “gift” from Congress.
It’s a bad policy and a dangerous precedent. It does far more violence to the United States Constitution than the actions it attempts to head off, and establishes that Congress can set its own foreign policy over the head of the president.
Webb is being incredibly disingenuous (that’s diplomatic lingo for “full of shit”) in his introduction to the bill. He says it would prohibit the president from attacking Iran without… ah, let’s just quote his own words:
“The major function of this legislation is to prevent this Administration from commencing unprovoked military activities against Iran without the approval of the Congress.”
Iran has been “provoking” us for 28 years. I already cited what they’re doing today. By definition, whatever we choose to do against them has already been provoked.
And it’s especially craven of Senator Clinton to sign on to it, while touting her own support for declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. It’s an insanely mixed signal to send — “a key element of your government is a terrorist organization actively involved in killing American troops and Iraqi civilians, but we under no circumstances will strike back militarily.”
The Webb bill is a bad bill. It does not need to be voted down, it needs to be taken out and beheaded, with its head stuck on a pike as a warning to the next ten generations of lawmakers that some ideas are just too stupid to be allowed to live.