Senator Rand Paul has just opened up a new vista in American foreign policy. He is attempting to re-impose constitutional norms on war-making powers – powers so rankly abused by president Obama so many times. His resolution for the declaration of war against ISIS has some classic lines from the past, reminding us how far we have drifted from what the Founders intended:
Whereas Article I, section 8, of the United States Constitution provides, ‘‘The Congress shall have the Power to . . . declare war’’;
Whereas President George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention, lectured: ‘‘The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress. Therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.’’;
Whereas James Madison, father of the Constitution, elaborated in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: ‘‘The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.’’;
Whereas James Madison wrote in his Letters of Helvidius: ‘‘In this case, the constitution has decided what shall not be deemed an executive authority; though it may not have clearly decided in every case what shall be so deemed. The declaring of war is expressly made a legislative function.’’
Even better, his resolution carefully delimits what the US can do in Iraq and Syria – defending US property and personnel; sunsetting the war to one year; and keeping ground forces to a few limited functions (and avoiding the fiction that there are not boots on the ground already in Iraq). The benefit of such a debate is precisely to insist that, especially in an age of a volunteer military, we need to be reminded of the moral gravity of war-making, and never rush or drift into war without lengthy, deliberate, advance consideration of unintended consequences.
As the signs accumulate that the president is eager to escalate the war in Iraq and Syria beyond anything we have yet seen, this resolution matters. It forces members of Congress to take a firm and clear stand; and it insists on a tight and reliable standard of what war is, a vital rebuke to the countless little wars being perpetrated by the unaccountable, extra-legal CIA all over the globe. It will be fascinating, in particular, to see how Hillary Clinton responds to the question, if she bothers to respond at all. We know where Paul stands on the NSA, the Libya war, and the role of the legislature in alone having the right to declare war. But we don’t know much (as usual) about Clinton’s views.
Where does she stand on these matters? And is she really prepared to run for election backing a more pro-war and pro-executive position than one of her main Republican rivals? It almost makes one look forward to the looming battle. Almost.
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