Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Only Congress can and should declare war.

Although there will always be "emergency" situations, the War Powers Act needs revision, and needs teeth.

Grenada, Panama, and all conflicts since Vietnam have been an abuse in one way or another of that act.

Telling especially, to me, was the fact that after 9/11, Bush could have gotten Congress to declare war on Al Qaeda, but chose not to do so.

Leslie Gelb and Anne-Marie Slaugher make a more detailed case in today's Washington Post

And Iraq, whether justified or not, is only the latest in a long line of ill-considered and ill-planned U.S. military adventures. Time and again in recent decades the United States has made military commitments after little real debate, with hazy goals and no appetite for the inevitable setbacks. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson plunged us into the Vietnam War with little sense of the region's history or culture. Ronald Reagan dispatched Marines to Lebanon, saying that stability there was a "vital interest," only to yank them out 16 months later after a deadly terrorist attack on Marine barracks. Bill Clinton, having inherited a mission in Somalia to feed the starving, ended up hunting tribal leaders and trying to build a nation.

Too often our leaders have entered wars with unclear and unfixed aims, tossing away American lives, power and credibility before figuring out what they were doing and what could be done. Congress saw the problem after the Vietnam War and tried to fix it with the War Powers Act. It states that troops sent into combat by the president must be withdrawn within 60 days unless Congress approves an extension. But presidents from Richard Nixon on never recognized the validity of this legislation against their powers as commander in chief. Nor did Congress ever assert its rights and take political responsibility. Since the Korean War, the process has consisted at most of a presidential request for a congressional resolution, a few serious speeches and authorization for the president to do whatever he wants. Odds are against changing these "political realities." But impaled as we are on the costs and carelessness of so many of our recent wars, it is worth trying to find a better way.

As often happens, an answer can be found with the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. They could not have foreseen the present age of nuclear missiles and cataclysmic terrorism. But they understood political accountability, and they knew that sending Americans to war required careful reflection and vigorous debate. Their answer survives in Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution, which gives Congress -- and only Congress -- the power to declare war. That power, exercised only a few times in our history, and not at all since World War II, needs to be reestablished and reinforced by new legislation. This legislation would fix guidelines for exercising the provision jointly between the White House and Congress. It would restore the Framers' intent by requiring a congressional declaration of war in advance of any commitment of troops that promises sustained combat.

Requiring Congress to declare war, rather than just approve or authorize the president's decision to take troops into combat, would make it much harder for Congress to duck its responsibilities.

I cannot but agree with that.

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