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Tomgram: Danny Sjursen, War Making in the Age of the Imperial Presidency

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Seventeen days after the Twin Towers fell in an apocalyptic mushroom cloud of smoke and ash, Congress passed with a single dissenting vote an "Authorization for Use of Military Force," or AUMF, stating:

"That the President is authorized 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, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons."

Sixteen years later, in the wake of four American military deaths at the hands of an ISIS-affiliated terror group in the lawless borderlands of Niger and Mali, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They were there to assure the senators that, as the Washington Post reported, "there was no need for a new war authorization to replace the one passed immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

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It didn't matter that, so many years later, the U.S. was embroiled in wars and conflicts of every sort from the Philippines to Syria, Yemen to Niger, often involving groups that had nothing to do with either al-Qaeda or the attacks of 9/11. As Micah Zenko recently commented, it's "depressing how frequently senators and Mattis say 'the enemy' to describe dozens of distinct groups in 19 countries." For the leading officials of the Trump administration, however, Congress did its bit more than a decade and a half ago and anything else, as the secretary of defense testified, "could only signal to our enemies and our friends that we are backing away from this fight." The repeal of that now-ancient AUMF, he added, would "create significant opportunities for our enemies to seize the initiative."

In other words, both Mattis and Tillerson were telling the senators that, when it came to Congress's constitutional duty to declare war, they should go home, get a good night's sleep, and leave the well-AUMFed experts of the U.S. military to deal with the situation as brilliantly as they have for the last decade and a half. However, as TomDispatch regular Army Major Danny Sjursen, author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad, points out today, in their advice the two Trump officials are actually well behind the times. When it came to Congress's war powers, those senators had long ago gone home.

If you need evidence of this, you only have to consider Senator Lindsey Graham's comment, typical of those of his congressional colleagues, in the wake of the deaths in Niger. "I didn't know there were 1,000 troops in Niger," he said. He meant, of course, American forces, adding that Congress simply doesn't "know exactly where we're at in the world, militarily, and what we're doing." (If he had been reading TomDispatch when it came to the U.S. military in Africa, he would, of course, have known.) And consider that he's a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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Assumedly, Graham and the other senators didn't know, for instance, that the 8,400 U.S. military personnel supposedly left in Afghanistan at the end of the Obama administration were actually 11,000-12,000 in number or that, in recent months-long fighting in the Philippine city of Marawi, taken by ISIS-affiliated guerillas, U.S. Special Operations advisers and American drones had played quiet but important roles. And on Afghanistan, thanks to new Trump-era military policies, the senators are soon likely to know even less. I could go on, but you get the idea. As Sjursen makes clear today, for the U.S. it's now presidential wars to the end of time. Tom

Congress's Romance with Cowardice
War Without War Powers (the Not-So-New American Way)
By Danny Sjursen

On September 1, 1970, soon after President Nixon expanded the Vietnam War by invading neighboring Cambodia, Democratic Senator George McGovern, a decorated World War II veteran and future presidential candidate, took to the floor of the Senate and said,

"Every Senator [here] is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave... This chamber reeks of blood... It does not take any courage at all for a congressman or a senator or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed."

More than six years had passed since Congress all but rubber-stamped President Lyndon Johnson's notoriously vague Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which provided what little legal framework there was for U.S. military escalation in Vietnam. Doubts remained as to the veracity of the supposed North Vietnamese naval attacks on U.S. ships in the Tonkin Gulf that had officially triggered the resolution, or whether the Navy even had cause to venture so close to a sovereign nation's coastline. No matter. Congress gave the president what he wanted: essentially a blank check to bomb, batter, and occupy South Vietnam. From there it was but a few short steps to nine more years of war, illegal secret bombings of Laos and Cambodia, ground invasions of both those countries, and eventually 58,000 American and upwards of three million Vietnamese deaths.

Leaving aside the rest of this country's sad chapter in Indochina, let's just focus for a moment on the role of Congress in that era's war making. In retrospect, Vietnam emerges as just one more chapter in 70 years of ineptitude and apathy on the part of the Senate and House of Representatives when it comes to their constitutionally granted war powers. Time and again in those years, the legislative branch shirked its historic -- and legal -- responsibility under the Constitution to declare (or refuse to declare) war.

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And yet, never in those seven decades has the duty of Congress to assert itself in matters of war and peace been quite so vital as it is today, with American troops engaged -- and still dying, even if now in small numbers -- in one undeclared war after another in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and now Niger... and who even knows where else.

Fast forward 53 years from the Tonkin Gulf crisis to Senator Rand Paul's desperate attempt this September to force something as simple as a congressional discussion of the legal basis for America's forever wars, which garnered just 36 votes. It was scuttled by a bipartisan coalition of war hawks. And who even noticed -- other than obsessive viewers of C-SPAN who were treated to Paul's four-hour-long cri de coeur denouncing Congress's agreement to "unlimited war, anywhere, anytime, anyplace upon the globe"?

The Kentucky senator sought something that should have seemed modest indeed: to end the reliance of one administration after another on the long-outdated post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) for all of America's multifaceted and widespread conflicts. He wanted to compel Congress to debate and legally sanction (or not) any future military operations anywhere on Earth. While that may sound reasonable enough, more than 60 senators, Democratic and Republican alike, stymied the effort. In the process, they sanctioned (yet again) their abdication of any role in America's perpetual state of war -- other than, of course, funding it munificently.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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