Bismarck’s pithy admonition, “Woe to the statesman whose arguments for entering a war are not as convincing at its end as they were at the beginning,” comes to mind as America retreats from the forgot-why-we-fought Afghan war, and seeks excuses for fresh conflict with Syria and Iran. But, as the growing economic crisis squeezes ordinary citizens, members of the US Congress have begun to question the President’s right to unilaterally intervene in the affairs of other nations.
Concerns increased after British Prime Minister David Cameron mooted independent action by NATO at the Chicago NATO meeting in May, backed by President Obama. Mr. Cameron had, in May 2010, ordered a full strategic review of Britain’s military forces and doctrine; President Obama followed suit in April 2011. At Chicago, both leaders pressed for a similar NATO study so as to endorse deployment of NATO troops, especially for humanitarian intervention, without formal approval from each parliament of the 28 member countries. This involves NATO getting its own military assets and the freedom to act without parliamentary approval if the NATO Heads of State agree unanimously.
This dangerous idea is now being resisted. Senator Jim Webb, a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, warned that in August 2011, President Obama signed Presidential Study Directive 10, to set up an Atrocities Prevention Board to assert unitary executive authority to launch preventive wars (humanitarian intervention) without consulting Congress. Recently, Defense Secretary Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee that the White House believes Congress need not be consulted before launching war.
Senator Webb proposes legislation to make Congressional approval mandatory before the President orders military action for ‘humanitarian interventions’ where American interests are not directly threatened. He explains, “In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, especially with the advent of special operations forces and remote bombing capabilities, the Congress seems to have faded into operational irrelevance.... We have now reached the point that the unprecedented – and quite frankly contorted – Constitutional logic used by this Administration to intervene in Libya on the basis of what can most kindly be called a United Nations standard of ‘humanitarian intervention,’ was not even subject to full debate or a vote on the Senate floor.”
Under the American constitution, Congress alone has the power to declare war (Article One, Section 8), while the President is Commander-in-Chief (Article Two, Section 2). Initially, these distinctions were clear because America had no large standing army during peace time. Indeed, the Founding Fathers never envisaged peace time forces; Congress was empowered to “raise and support armies” for war; these were demobilized once wars ended.
The situation changed after World War Two, when America’s emergence as a superpower required keeping a large standing military force in Europe and Asia, to act in urgent crises. This scuttled the time-honoured process of asking Congress for a declaration of war.
Yet this does not legitimize the President’s deploying military force whenever and wherever he decides to, even where Americans are not personally at risk and where the vital interests of the country have not been debated and clearly defined. Interestingly, when American lives were at risk, and lost, in the Mumbai 2008 attack, Washington urged restraint upon New Delhi and did not adequately press Pakistan to hand over the culprits to India. Hence Americans now feel the need to define objective standards for “humanitarian intervention” in the domestic tensions of other countries. Webb argues that Congress has a direct role in the development and execution of foreign policy.
Nor is America compelled or justified to take action on the basis of a vote in the United Nations, or because of a decision made by NATO when none of its members have been attacked. The President has no prerogative to commit US military and prestige in situations that do not clearly flow from vital national interests; he must obtain formal approval from Congress.
Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) warns against Washington beating war drums for “regime change” in Syria after expelling Syrian diplomats, and wants the administration to seek a Declaration of War from Congress so that there can be a debate. Pointing out that it is by no means clear if the Houla massacre was the work of the Syrian military or armed rebels linked to al-Qaeda, he said Washington should wait for a full investigation, unless truth is less important than whipping up emotions in favour of war.
Washington, he laments, has lied too often in order to deploy forces overseas. There were tales about Col Gaddafi planning genocide of the Libyan people, which proved untrue. But by then the US-NATO had destroyed Libya, killing untold numbers of civilians, and leaving violent thugs in charge of what was once the best governed State in Africa. Similar falsehoods about WMDs justified the 2003 war on Iraq; today the country is a mess with its ancient Christian population eliminated and economy shattered. Before that, Rep. Paul adds, there were lies about genocide in Kosovo to justify President Clinton’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. Twelve years later, the region is as unstable and dangerous as before US intervention – and American troops are still there.
Worse, the Syrian massacre story keeps changing. First, the killings were allegedly caused by government shelling; then it was found that most victims were killed at close range with handgun fire and knives. Why would Government forces go house-to-house binding the hands of victims before shooting them, and then allow rebels to record the horror? Americans must ask who benefits from these stories, he cautions.
The media has for weeks been reporting that the Obama administration is providing direct “non-lethal” aid to Syrian rebels, and facilitating transfer of weapons from other Gulf States. This could soon become overt intervention since Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said about Syria, “I think the military option should be considered.” Since when, asks Rep. Paul, did generals decide when America will go to war?
Now, Rep. Walter Jones (N. Carolina-3) has moved House Concurrent Resolution 107 to reassert Congress’ sole authority to declare war, and invoke impeachment proceedings against any President who takes the country to war without first obtaining Congressional approval. This is a welcome move. A nation that rushes into war on one set of subterfuges, then seeks other excuses to retreat from defeat, urgently needs domestic introspection and containment.