How Shall We Go to War Today?

The news that 10 members of Congress have filed suit against President Obama claiming he has violated the War Powers Resolution should come as no surprise.  President Obama is simply the latest in a long line of presidents – all of them – to claim for himself the unilateral right to determine when, where, how and how long are armed forces can be deployed in the field.

This is not a  right/left, liberal/conservative thing.  Dennis Kucinich and John Boehner man one side of the debate and Barack Obama and George W. Bush man the other. Hell, Senator Barack Obama the senator doesn’t agree with President Barack Obama on this topic.

Instead, the debate is an institutional one.  Congress takes seriously the Constitutional words in Article I, Section 8 that it alone has the power to declare war.  Each president takes just as seriously his duties as commander-in-chief and the oath of office to protect and defend the country as enumerated in Article II.

An that’s all it takes to start a Constitutional tug-of-war that has lasted until today.

Everybody pretty much agrees that the President doesn’t need Congressional authorization to deploy troops in response to an attack or to stop an attack that is imminent.  Over the years, however, succeeding presidents have used those exceptions to stretch their usage at least into controversial if not outright distorted grounds.

Even more effectively, though, presidents have gotten around the Constitutional requirements by simply defining a deployment as something other than “war.”  Hence the long line of “police actions,” “peacekeeping missions.” and “limited kinetic engagements” that populate our history of going to other countries and tearing up big chunks of it.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution came about when frustration about our involvement in Vietnam – which to many was an unauthorized war – reached a peak in Congress.  The joint resolution passed both house overwhelmingly and then was passed again over President Nixon’s veto.

The resolution actually represents a major concession by the Congress in that it allowed the president to deploy troops pretty much as he sees fit for up to 60 days with only an after-the-fact notice to Congress.  While a retreat in the eyes of some Constitutional scholars, it also was a recognition that the framers’ worldview – in which the development of threats and responses took months or years and that most armed conflict was nation versus nation in nature – no longer applied.

Good intentions, perhaps, but in practice  the War Powers Resolution has simply given executives another way to deploy troops as they wish.  When it suits their purpose, presidents cite their compliance with the resolution as a post-hoc justification for their actions.  When it doesn’t, as Mr. Obama did today, they assert that the Resolution doesn’t apply and is un-Constitutional to boot.

In case you’re wondering why the Constitutionality of these actions and resolutions are still in question, the answer is that no branch of government – not the executive, not the legislative and certainly not the judiciary – wants this question cleared up.  The legislative and executive branches both worry that the courts will weaken their current powers and the judicial branch does not want the job of parsing the Constitutionality of such a touchy subject.  A ruling one way or the other could put one of the branches of government into direct conflict with the finding and bring to the fore a Constitutional crisis that we’ve all managed to mostly ignore for nearly 225 years.

Accordingly, expect this lawsuit to go pretty much nowhere because – after the press conferences are over – the last thing anybody really wants is a speedy trial.

– Austin


16 thoughts on “How Shall We Go to War Today?

  1. PM. says:

    Good post, jon.

    i don’t get too excited about this whole issue, because if Congress was really, seriously opposed, they could always cut off funding. Bottom line is that they’d rather have the President on the hook for wars (and their consequences)

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      Re: Congress “can always cut off funding.”

      Yes, they can, on paper. But they rarely do, in reality.

      Reason: To defund a war is perceived to be “abandoning our troops,” leaving them in the line of fire without adequate means of protecting themselves. This is viewed as unconscionable to American citizens, rendering war defunding political harakiri.

      And so what happens? Congress keeps funding President’s military actions until the President and his generals are good and ready to disengage, so as not to be labeled callous to the needs of America’s brave soldiers. That’s why the “they can always cut off funding” protection against military misadventures isn’t very protective.

      1. PM. says:

        i agree with you, Joe. But if congress would be unwilling to cut of funding in the face of an argument like “abandoning the troops”, why would they be any more willing to “abandon the troops” b y enforcing the War Powers Act?

        That is exactly the point I am trying to make. Congress will ALWAYS be unwilling to cross the President on an issue like this, because they will ALWAYS face the “abandoning the troops” meme. Another law will not change the dynamic between the President and the Congress over the control of the military

      2. Joe Loveland says:

        Agreed that Congress still will usually follow the President when it comes to declarations of war. But Congress is more likely to pull the plug BEFORE a conflict — the initial declaration of war — than DURING a conflict — the ongoing funding of war. Reason: During the declaration of war debate, troops aren’t in the line of fire yet, with all the pressure to protect them that comes with that situation. That’s why in my fantasy world, I’d like to see the legislative branch do it’s job and check the war-making power of the executive on the front end, rather than bank on the fact that they check his power mid-war.

  2. Joe Loveland says:

    Sue away. It’s too darn easy to go to war. Modern Presidents can load up a full scale military invasion about as easily as they can load up a video game. Given the stakes – deaths, disabilities, deficits, debt — we need a congressional debate and the support of a super-majority. Nations are made and broken based on war declarations, so there needs to be a full national debate and buy-in. This is one of those orphan issues that the news media should be covering more.

  3. I generally agree with the notion that we ought to go to war – which I define as any time we plan to send large numbers of our military in harm’s way or when we might be killing lots of people – only when there’s overwhelming agreement that this is the right thing to do. One of the best ways to signal that agreement is a vote from both houses of Congress.

    That said, I think there are circumstances, beyond imminent or actual attack, in which we ought to act – to prevent genocide, for example – even in the absence of such an endorsement. If we do it, though, the Administration should man up and honor the intent of the War Powers Resolution which – IMHO – absolutely applies to Libya, Kosovo and other limited conflicts.

    And, using my definition as a guideline, the administration ought to be ready to go to Congress for its drone attacks in Yemen.

    – Austin

  4. Newt says:

    Obama’s desire to be liked by the Europeans is what’s driving our involvement in the Libya war. He would rather be liked by the Europeans than Congress. That’s what it comes down to.

    And as with all wars, America is the only one doing the heavy lifting. We also know that the Europeans don’t respect us no matter what we do.

    1. Jim Leinfelder says:

      Newt, you sound a lot like a wounded little amphibian who cares pretty deeply what Europe thinks of us.

      Really, so it’s Obama’s deeply-felt need to be liked by Europe that has him sending his Secretary of Defense over there to give ’em a frank talking to about pulling their own weight when it come to their own national defense? That’s your idea of sucking up to Europe?

      As for being liked by Congress, given that assemblage, I reckon their derision amounts to praise by the damning of a faint group.

      1. Newt says:

        I don’t give a shit about Europe. I seek neither their admiration nor support. When the Asian Tiger emerges in the next decade, Europe will be like the Roman ruins and the US will resemble today’s Mexico.

        In 2008 Obama and liberals were so hung up about being admired by the “world community” (whatever the hell that means) that they now grab their ankles every time some multinational body needs dirty work done.

    2. In Europe people usually say “We’re only going to war to please the US, not that they even respect us…”

      This is how things look when we always look to our ‘leaders’ but never look above them to see where the strings go. To do so requires zooming out. Zooming out is the opposite of ‘news’. Through up to the minute, on the hour ‘news’, ‘current affairs’ and ‘political analysis’ we are taught to always stay zoomed in to an almost microscopic level. Added to this we are given the false left right paradigm.

      If you haven’t already looked at the world from a zoomed out perspective and want to try it, watch this (the sound gets better after a couple of minutes).

      1. Two hours and fifty-three minutes?!?! Are you serious? This is like listening to one of Uncle Fidel’s speeches….

        …I’m listening… …still listening…

        …ten minutes…

        …argh…I can’t take it anymore. I held out for 15 minutes. The guy on stage thinks there’s a global conspiracy to install a worldwide “big brother” government. Maybe he proves in in the next 2:37 but he’s lost me.

        – Austin

  5. Mike Kennedy says:

    Good post. I tend to agree with PM. Congress does have some control in the way of funding. I also agree that no one wants to test this — Congress, the executive branch or the judiciary. Perhaps some things are better left undone.

  6. @Jon Austin

    If you don’t even have the attention span to sit attentively through a very casual three hour description of the world (his lectures are typically about 9 hours BTW) then you can hardly then turn around and call it all a ‘conspiracy’ can you?!

    This is exactly what I was referring to by people being too ‘zoomed in’.

    Imagine trying to describe (or even convince people of the existence of) a three hour long full orchestral ‘symphony’ when they have only ever been shown one or two parts of the whole score at most, and only ever for a few bars at a time. Anything more than that and they lose interest or simply can’t cope. As a result they are only willing (or indeed capable) of examining fragments of the score close up …. anything more than that is beyond their experience and thus comprehension.

    Now imagine the clarity possible when just reading (or listening to) the score for the clarinets in isolation, or perhaps the clarinets and first strings together. You can pick out every note (ie you can see exactly what is ‘going on’), but there is no real sense or meaning to it. In isolation those parts don’t make ‘music’, they are just occasional sustained notes fading in and out, or isolated runs or trills or staccatos, interspersed with long periods of silence.

    And this is exactly how most people comprehend the world around them. And it doesn’t matter how well educated or intelligent you are. You are just never going to ‘get it’ (a full comprehension of the whole symphony) by looking at it in such a compartmentalized manner – even if you get yourself a degree in music theory!

    Our current ‘news’ and ‘current affairs’ formats etc are like having 4 bars of the piccolos read out, followed by 6 bars of the bassoons from somewhere else in the score and so on. It’s always a fragmented, isolated view. Always. And always an exceptionally fleeting glimpse too!

    We get ‘news’ headlines on the hour, perhaps a 15 minute or half an hour main ‘news’ program in the evening and the odd 45 minute to an hour long current affairs program. (‘Program’ … there’s an interesting word). That’s the kind of keyhole view that most people base their understanding of the world on. And however many times a day people check the view through that keyhole – it’s still a keyhole sized view!

    And academia is even worse in this respect! A keyhole view viewed though a telescope, if you like.

    And so (going back to the analogy) by adding more and more parts and merging them all together (as in the video I posted) you inevitably create something which is much less clear and crisply defined ……. yet for the first time the *overall sense* of the piece and its actual *meaning* becomes increasingly clear, even though you can’t necessarily pick out individual notes or parts so easily.

    And the true meaning and *intention* of all those isolated parts, which is how they relate to and interact with each other now becomes clear. What you lose in individual clarity you gain in overall context. With context one gains more than meaning, one can also grasp its entire arc over *time*.

    This is a level of appreciation which is completely absent in our ‘news’ and ‘current affairs’ which is fragmented and rarely references the past in any meaningful way whatsoever. Instead we are encouraged to have compartmentalized (in time) reactions to the compartmentalized events (in space) rather than an coherent (fully conscious) appreciation of the whole *movement* over time. But we are all so familiar with this format and its ridiculous way of viewing what’s happening in the world that we just accept it and never question it.

    The ‘news’ constantly reinforces the importance of NOW with its chiming clock intros and ‘breaking news’ stories. Yet the immediacy aspect is largely irrelevant to most people and for most ‘news’ stories. We’d all cope fine with a weekly ‘news’ roundup to keep is in the picture of most local, national and world events.

    But what this emphasis on the ‘BONG! Here’s the latest news right now!!!’ aspect of ‘news’ does is to reduce our collective attention span to something more akin to that of a goldfish. React, react, react! It prevents us from gaining a sense of overall perspective or appreciation or sense of depth – all of which are needed for a proper *understanding* of what is actually happening around us.

    With such a goldfish-like state of awareness we are therefore all conditioned to dismiss and disregard any information which differs from those nice isolated snippets we are all so used to feeding on. (those bite sized fish food news flakes).

    Your instant dismissal of that video I posted is a perfect example of this. “It’s too long and too convoluted, I want bite sized facts I can swallow without needing to chew…” No offense meant BTW but your reaction is a perfect illustration of what I was talking about so useful in that respect 🙂

    Is a farm some giant secret ‘conspiracy’ ….. or is the animals’ collective view of the world simply too limited for them to see (fully appreciate) what is plainly going on in front of their noses and what there role (and ultimate fate) is on that farm?

    When you were 6 years old with your limited 6 year old view of the world did grown up complicated things like geopolitics, sex trafficking, commodities, corporate fraud, menopause, satire, tax evasion etc not exist in the world – or was it just that at the time you could not comprehend them (or experience them) and so such things simply didn’t exist *for you* at that time?

    And in the same way could things possibly exist today that you are simply not aware of (or can’t appreciate the significance of)? Does YOUR level of awareness and comprehension determine what exists in the world (or doesn’t exist) and what is ‘going on’ … does it determine what is even possible?

    Or are you like a 6 year old boy, or an isolated tribe in the rainforest, or an upper class teenage girl, or a dog, or a worm or a newt – simply the product of your inevitably limited and highly individual experiences?

    And finally, what is it that makes you (and most people) feel or believe, that your world view and your understanding of ‘current affairs’ is essentially complete, at least to the point that you have a basic understanding of ‘what is going on’ around you?

    And if you feel you do know (more or less) what is going on in the world did you make that assessment consciously all by yourself (if so on what grounds?) or did you simply accept this idea (this feeling) simply by conforming to the general level of awareness around you and the current consensus belief system …….. led predominantly by the corporate mainstream media with their unquestioning, fleeting, shallow, blinkered, fractured, compartmentalized and endlessly repetitive ‘news’ and ‘current affairs’ programs?

    Hey, I found two more ‘Beginner’s Guide’ videos for you which are just under and just over two hours long here and here.

    Given our advanced state of dumbing down (or dumbing up for the well educated) any attempt at an explanation shorter than a couple of hours long is quite frankly not possible I’m afraid. LOL.

    I do understand the difficulty in grasping the idea of such a new perspective on the (apparently already familiar) world of ‘current affairs’, or even being interested in gaining such a big picture perspective.

    I think it is especially hard for well educated people to let go of the clarity of compartmentalized, zoomed in thinking and open themselves up to big picture zoomed out understanding.

    After all, education these days is designed specifically to create workers, intellectuals, scientists, politicians who serve – not question – the system …. education, academia (and later in life, the media) while wonderful in many ways are all obstacles we must overcome if we are to become philosophers or insightful researchers or ‘joined up thinkers’ who can see right through the system!

    But with so little financial or social status rewards for seeing through the system, who can be motivated to do it! (You’ll just get called a nutter after all!). There is of course one motivation worth considering in these times of increased corporate-state integration in a increasingly high tech age………. survival!

    But perhaps it is too late already. Perhaps you are simply too over educated in this western post industrial academic tradition and thus do not have the imagination and conceptual prowess required to accomplish such a zoomed out, symphonic perspective on the world – in which case feel free to ignore me, and view me as just a crazy nutter 😉

  7. PM. says:

    So today the house of Representatives refused to authorize action in Libya, but also refused to cut of funding for that action.

    Would you call that standing on principal? Or weaseling out?

    Basically, they are saying that the President is wrong, but they are unwilling to do anything about it.

    1. Like I said, everybody wants to rattle their sabres, harrumph about their Constitutional powers being usurped, but nobody actually wants to force a Constitutional crisis.

      – Austin

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