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The Congress and Afghanistan: Rubber-Stamping Yet Another War?

On August 7, 1964, the United States House of Representatives voted 416-0, and the U.S. Senate voted 88-2, to support President Lyndon Johnson's decision to bomb North Vietnam in response to the alleged attacks three days earlier on two U.S. war ships—the Maddox and Turner Joy—in the Gulf of Tonkin. The congressional resolution also authorized the "Commander in Chief to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." The nearly unanimous "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution" marked the start of the U.S. commitment to large-scale U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.   

On September 14, 2001, the House of Representatives voted 420-1, and the Senate voted 98-0, to authorize the president "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." This congressional authorization of the "war against terrorism" was signed by President Bush on September 18, 2001.

In October 2002, while stating that Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction posed a "threat to the national security of the United States," the House of Representatives voted 296-133, and the Senate voted 77-23, to authorize President Bush to use the armed forces of the United States "as he determines to be necessary and appropriate" in order "to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq." President Bush signed this de-facto congressional authorization to invade Iraq on October 16, 2002.

What is wrong, primarily, with this series of congressional authorizations is that the Congress failed in each instance to exercise a fundamental constitutional obligation to check—rather than rubber-stamp—the president's authority to take the country to war. Under the U.S. Constitution, the Congress has the power to declare war, while the president has authority to conduct war once declared. In modern practice, the Congress has simply consented to the president's wars, as reflected in the resolutions cited above, which the president then conducted with funds rubber-stamped (again) by Congress. The disasters of the U.S. wars in Indochina and Iraq, in addition to the unending war against terrorism, should speak for themselves as to the wisdom of Congress's abrogation of arguably its most important constitutional powers—the power to declare war and the power of the purse.

Like the Congress, the press also has self-annulled a key constitutional power. In the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, U.S. Supreme Court justice Hugo Black famously exhorted the press to be vigilant of the government's reasons for going to war: "Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell." With the exception of the New York Times' publication of excerpts and analysis of the Pentagon's secret history of the U.S. war in Indochina (the "Pentagon Papers"), elite news organizations have been far more inclined to publish the president's false show of facts as grounds for war, including reporting as fact President Johnson's false claim that the Maddox and Turner Joy were attacked by North Vietnam on August 4 in the Gulf of Tonkin, and President George W. Bush's unsubstantiated assertions that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Likewise, since the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the federal courts have been reluctant to check the growing war powers of the president, ruling in the clashes that have developed between the Congress and the president that a war powers dispute is a "political question" that should be resolved by the political branches of government, or that a clash wasn't "ripe" enough for the courts to intervene, given the relatively small numbers of congressional members suing the president.   

In short, as things stand, the president is essentially unchecked by the Congress, the courts, and the press when he seeks to go to war. It further seems that the president's generals—who, as uniformed members of the military, have far too much access to TV and radio to lobby the American public on behalf of policies they support—have more power and influence than the Congress and the courts about when and where the United States should go to war.       

Though one could argue that the nation's top generals seem far more responsible than the right-wing radicals that now dominate the Republican Party, it is nevertheless the case that the Democrats currently control both the House and Senate, should invoke Congress's constitutional authority to make decisions concerning war, and, beyond that, should deny funding for any request by President Obama to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan.     

Doing so would have the support of an apparent majority of the American public, given the most recent poll results (CNN, September 1) which show that 57 percent oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The Democrats' refusal to fund more troops would also prevent President Obama from irreversibly escalating a war that (according to the CNN poll) is opposed by Democrats (75 percent) and Independents (57 percent) and supported only by Republicans (70 percent).

The Democrats in Congress should now oppose the war in Afghanistan, before any additional escalation, and, as Senator Russ Feingold suggested, require President Obama to set a timetable for withdrawal. This would not only ensure against any additional congressional complicity in yet another disastrous U.S. war in a far-off land, it would go a long way in taking back the decision to go to war from one elected official and his generals.

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