[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Here's a special offer for you today. A TD favorite, bestselling author Andrew Bacevich, has just published America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, a stunning new book on Washington's roiling set of conflicts in the Middle East from 1980 to late last night. I've been following the subject at TD for years and I still was repeatedly surprised by what he covers and makes sense of. For a limited period, in return for a $100 contribution ($125 if you live outside the United States), you can get a signed, personalized copy of the book and believe me, if you want to understand our screwed-up world, it's one you'll want to read. Check our donation page for the details. Tom]
It was a large banner and its message was clear. It read: "Mission Accomplished," and no, I don't mean the classic "mission accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln under which, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush proudly proclaimed (to the derision of critics ever since) that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended." I'm actually referring to a September 1982 banner with those same two words (and an added "farewell" below them) displayed on a landing craft picking up the last Marines sent ashore in Beirut, Lebanon, to be, as President Ronald Reagan put it when they arrived the previous August, "what Marines have been for more than 200 years -- peace-makers." Of course, when Bush co-piloted an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto the deck of the Abraham Lincoln and made his now-classic statement, major combat had barely begun in Iraq (and it has yet to end) -- nor was it peace that came to Beirut in September 1982: infamously, the following year 241 Marines would die there in a single day, thanks to a suicide bomber.
"Not for the last time," writes Andrew Bacevich in his monumental new work, America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, "the claim proved to be illusory." Indeed, one of the grim and eerie wonders of his book is the way in which just about every wrongheaded thing Washington did in that region in the 14-plus years since 9/11 had its surprising precursor in the two decades of American war there before the World Trade Center towers came down. U.S. military trainers and advisers, for example, failed (as they later would in Iraq and Afghanistan) to successfully build armies, starting with the Lebanese one; Bush's "preventive war" had its predecessor in a Reagan directive called (ominously enough given what was to come) "combating terrorism"; Washington's obsessive belief of recent years that problems in the region could be solved by what Andrew Cockburn has called the "kingpin strategy" -- the urge to dismantle terror organizations by taking out their leadership via drones or special operations raids -- had its precursor in "decapitation" operations against Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid with similar resulting mayhem. The belief that "an additional increment of combat power might turn around a failing endeavor" -- call it a "surge," if you will -- had its Iraq and Afghan pretrial run in Somalia in 1993. And above all, of course, there was Washington's unquenchable post-1980 urge to intervene, military first, in a decisive way throughout the region, which, as Bacevich writes, only "produced conditions conducive to further violence and further disorder," and if that isn't the repetitive history of America's failed post-2001 wars in a nutshell, what is?
As it happened, the effects of such actions from 1980 on were felt not just in the Greater Middle East and Africa, but in the United States, too. There, as Bacevich writes today, war became a blank-check activity for a White House no longer either checked (in any sense) or balanced by Congress. Think of it as another sad tale of a surge (or do I mean a decapitation?) that went wrong. Tom
Writing a Blank Check on War for the President
How the United States Became a Prisoner of War and Congress Went MIA
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Let's face it: in times of war, the Constitution tends to take a beating. With the safety or survival of the nation said to be at risk, the basic law of the land -- otherwise considered sacrosanct -- becomes nonbinding, subject to being waived at the whim of government authorities who are impatient, scared, panicky, or just plain pissed off.- Advertisement -
The examples are legion. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln arbitrarily suspended the writ of habeas corpus and ignored court orders that took issue with his authority to do so. After U.S. entry into World War I, the administration of Woodrow Wilson mounted a comprehensive effort to crush dissent, shutting down anti-war publications in complete disregard of the First Amendment. Amid the hysteria triggered by Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order consigning to concentration camps more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans, many of them native-born citizens. Asked in 1944 to review this gross violation of due process, the Supreme Court endorsed the government's action by a 6-3 vote.
More often than not, the passing of the emergency induces second thoughts and even remorse. The further into the past a particular war recedes, the more dubious the wartime arguments for violating the Constitution appear. Americans thereby take comfort in the "lessons learned" that will presumably prohibit any future recurrence of such folly.
Even so, the onset of the next war finds the Constitution once more being ill-treated. We don't repeat past transgressions, of course. Instead, we devise new ones. So it has been during the ongoing post-9/11 period of protracted war.
During the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States embraced torture as an instrument of policy in clear violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Bush's successor, Barack Obama, ordered the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen, a death by drone that was visibly in disregard of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Both administrations -- Bush's with gusto, Obama's with evident regret -- imprisoned individuals for years on end without charge and without anything remotely approximating the "speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury" guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Should the present state of hostilities ever end, we can no doubt expect Guanta'namo to become yet another source of "lessons learned" for future generations of rueful Americans.
Congress on the Sidelines
Yet one particular check-and-balance constitutional proviso now appears exempt from this recurring phenomenon of disregard followed by professions of dismay, embarrassment, and "never again-ism" once the military emergency passes. I mean, of course, Article I, section 8 of the Constitution, which assigns to Congress the authority "to declare war" and still stands as testimony to the genius of those who drafted it. There can be no question that the responsibility for deciding when and whether the United States should fight resides with the legislative branch, not the executive, and that this was manifestly the intent of the Framers.- Advertisement -
On parchment at least, the division of labor appears straightforward. The president's designation as commander-in-chief of the armed forces in no way implies a blanket authorization to employ those forces however he sees fit or anything faintly like it. Quite the contrary: legitimizing presidential command requires explicit congressional sanction.
Actual practice has evolved into something altogether different. The portion of Article I, Section 8, cited above has become a dead letter, about as operative as blue laws still on the books in some American cities and towns that purport to regulate Sabbath day activities. Superseding the written text is an unwritten counterpart that goes something like this: with legislators largely consigned to the status of observers, presidents pretty much wage war whenever, wherever, and however they see fit. Whether the result qualifies as usurpation or forfeiture is one of those chicken-and-egg questions that's interesting but practically speaking beside the point.
This is by no means a recent development. It has a history. In the summer of 1950, when President Harry Truman decided that a U.N. Security Council resolution provided sufficient warrant for him to order U.S. forces to fight in Korea, congressional war powers took a hit from which they would never recover.