President Obama is now seeking congressional approval for his ongoing offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS), which began about six months ago. When the president was first gearing up for airstrikes, he said that he preferred input from Congress, but did not require formal authorization, as he was already covered by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).
Republicans have been long clamoring about Obama's abuse of Executive power. House Speaker John Boehner's spokesman even went so far as to call him "Emperor Obama" during the debates over immigration policy. But with the ISIS offensive, congressional Republicans have more readily surrendered their war powers to the president. Recall that in November, when war-tired voters were hitting the polls, they joined congressional Democrats in ducking a vote on ISIS. Instead Congress voted on a lesser bill to authorize the arming of the Syrian rebels, then raced off to their home states to campaign for the midterms.
Some Democrats have expressed concern over presidential overreach in the declaration of war against ISIS. But the more heated controversy to come regards "boots on the ground," and whether a renewed Authorization will expand the president's power to deploy combat troops.
Such debates underscore an enduring tension over the balance of power in American governmental leadership, one that dates back to our country's founding. They also raise profound questions regarding the function of America's armed forces, and the continuous drumbeat of militarism that's sounding from both sides of the aisle.
One of the most contentious debates in the United States' early founding regarded the role of the U.S. Military. Federalists believed that a standing army was crucial for thwarting threats to the nation. Anti-federalists characterized standing armies as a support of "military kings," arguing that the defense of the nation should remain with state militias. Coming off the British monarchy, in which the king not only acted as commander in chief, but also had the power to raise and maintain armies, the founders decided to separate war powers: the president remained commander-in-chief, but the responsibility to raise and support the military lay in the hands of Congress, the branch believed to be most connected to the people.
Congress is arguably less connected to the people than ever before. But even so, the president's role as commander in chief, as delineated in Article II of the U.S. Constitution, provides only a vague blueprint for the governmental distribution of military power. The founders put a great deal of focus on the legislative branch as a link to the people and major check on the tyrannical power of the executive. But the loose wording of Article II has historically allowed presidents to use the "inherent power" of their office to conduct military operations without congressional oversight or approval.
During the Korean war, for example, Truman unilaterally sent troops to South Korea, marking the first time in U.S. history that a president initiated a war without a declaration from Congress. Truman defended his move by claiming that Korea only constituted a "police action." But the Korean War lasted for three years, and some 5 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives.
In Vietnam, American forces were initially sent as "military advisors" when the French pulled out in 1954. Troop numbers increased under Kennedy, and again under Johnson. When North Vietnamese patrol boats fired on a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam. Congress initially supported him, but when the war became widely unpopular, it flexed its muscle by passing the War Powers Act. The Act did not include a check on the CIA, but did require presidents to consult with Congress before engaging in armed conflict.
But Presidents do have their way. When Reagan sought to eradicate communism and overcome the Cuban-backed Sandinistas in Nicaragua, he circumvented congressional Democrats' restrictions on CIA and military operations, and engaged in a series of covert activities to raise funds for the Contras by selling arms to Iran. Profits from the sales were used to support the Contras until Reagan's people got caught, and the notorious Iran-Contra scandal ensued.
After 9/11, and before the Iraq War, Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which gave the president the legal authority "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons..." Bush used the AUMF to justify his illegal torture program and wiretapping of American citizens, but more often, he invoked the "inherent powers" of his office to emphasize how his authority over matters of national security did not derive from Congress.
President Obama has doubled down on many of the Bush programs that presidential candidate Obama once derided as abuses of Executive power, including NSA surveillance programs, impingements on press freedoms, and the Patriot Act. He's continued "extraordinary rendition," and used the AUMF to carry out secret drone strikes, with his own, infamous "kill list," that's included U.S. citizens. A global network of U.S. Special Operations forces has allegedly deployed in over a hundred secret wars. And we are firmly back in Iraq, again for an unforeseeable future.
In the weeks to come, Americans will bear witness to congressional hearings and debates over presidential war powers. And despite the lack of proof that ISIS poses a direct threat to the homeland, we'll hear a lot of talk about emergent dangers and military necessity. What we won't hear, however, is real discussion of antiwar alternatives. Truth is, even when the president is not stretching his powers, and Congress, not ducking votes, Americans opposed to war have little representation among today's political leadership. Obama is not the anti-war president he promised to be. And no congressman wants to be the one who voted against a military action that could prevent another 9/11. Certainly the lobbyists from Boeing or Lockhead Martin will not oppose. After all, their stocks have been trading at all time highs since the airstrikes began.
In his landmark farewell address, George Washington stated that "Overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty." He and the founders established a model of a standing army that would provide a foundation for an expanded military force in times of emergency, and recede in peacetime. Once the emergency was over, the country would demilitarize, and its soldiers return to civilian life.
This model prevailed until the Cold War, when the U.S. began maintaining a large peacetime military to combat the Red Menace. With a prevailing consensus among our political leaders that terrorism has become the new communism, by what means can Americans be free of the grip of militarism that Washington warned against?
Or, have we firmly entered an epoch of forever war, and Military Kings?