War Powers

By now, I’m sure that it’s news to no one that, on the orders of President Trump, a drone attack killed the top Iranian general, a man some predicted had the connections and the skills to rise even higher.  The attack took place at an airport in Iraq, where the general and other key military personnel had been attending a meeting to which they had been invited by persons in the Iraqi government.

I’m not happy about this, but my unease is not based on any affection for the victim.  I’m not totally convinced that the term “terrorist” correctly applies to an army officer who has engaged in attacks against a perceived enemy, a nation that even some Americans claim Iran has been at war with since 1979.  But that’s neither here nor there. He was, without question, a willing servant of an extremely repressive government, and an officer who in the course of his duties has sent many young people on his own side to their deaths on behalf of dubious causes.  That’s quite apart from the deaths of American personnel he’s been accused of. So I’ll spare any tears. Quite honestly, I don’t idolize high-ranking military officers in any military.  I’m willing to give the rank-and-file soldier the benefit of the doubt, and even to call him or her a hero when acting to save the lives of his or her buddies.  The generals — all of the generals — ought to know better.

No, my real unease with this is based on the realization that just one man, acting without oversight, has the power to take such an action.  Article I, Section 8, Clause 11, vests in Congress the sole power to declare war. Now, never mind the fact that our nation has engaged in military operations over and over again without a formal declaration of war from Congress.  Never mind that Congress has meekly abrogated that power, permitting this country to engage in such actions almost continuously since the end of World War II in 1945 without once passing a formal declaration of war.

In 1973, Congress set out to limit the powers of the President to engage in military actions abroad without its consent.  It passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973 over the veto of President Nixon. “Without Congressional approval, the President is allowed to send troops abroad only in the event that the US is under attack or faces a serious threat. In addition, the President must inform Congress of any military action within 48 hours. The troops can only remain in combat for 60 days before withdrawing. Withdrawal must be completed within 30 days.” (from “What is the War Powers Act” in wiseGEEK.com.)

Do you see the problem here?  By separating the power to institute war (Congress) from the power to manage and direct the military (President), the Founding Fathers intended that there be a check on the powers of both to commit American troops to battle.  But what the War Powers Act does, in attempting to limit the President’s ability to act alone, is to explicitly grant him the power to act alone. And since 1973, every American President has taken advantage of that power.

It’s of only secondary importance that I do not like, did not vote for, do not support, and do not trust that particular President who took this action on this occasion.  If Gary Johnson or Justin Amash or the reincarnation of Harry Browne were sitting in the Oval Office today, I wouldn’t want him to have this kind of power.

I’m not going to peer into my crystal ball and try to predict what the outcome of this attack will be.  I can imagine a wide range of possibilities. The best outcome I could look for, and sadly, also the most unlikely, would be that Congress would finally get up on its hind legs and take back the powers that our Constitution reserves to it.  There is substantial disregard for this President (even, secretly, I believe, by many in his own party). And I’d like to believe that there could be a rising realization that the legislative branch has been emasculated by generations of executive overreach and its own timidity.  So perhaps it could happen. I won’t hold my breath.

Equally sadly, the most likely outcome is an escalation of tensions in the region (again — I hate reruns.), continued passivity on the part of the legislative branch, even more thousands of young American men and women sent to a region of the world in which we should not be so involved, and saddest of all, too many of them coming home either missing limbs or in aluminum boxes.

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