Recently, the House of Representatives repealed the 2002 authorization for military action in Iraq and patted itself on the back. But the fact that it took two decades reminds us just how far we’ve strayed from the Constitution when it comes to armed conflict.
Having just thrown off a mad monarch who bungled a fight, the Founding Fathers empowered Congress to declare war. But it’s a responsibility the House and Senate have steadily abdicated, cutting presidents loose to slay monsters. The result is a steady stream of lost lives at bleeding borders.
It was easier before we had a standing army, which the Founders disdained. A president needed Congress to buy wood and time to whittle it into a big stick, forcing him to speak softly at the outset. Now we hand our executives Thor’s hammer, and they swing it like bad carpenters.
Those hot, sweaty visionaries at Independence Hall chose to write flexibility in the Constitution on this issue, and certainly there can be bad declarations of war, as Ulysses S. Grant regarded the one in 1846 against Mexico. Nevertheless, Congress did its job well for 170 years, declaring war on 11 occasions starting in 1812 and passing resolutions for lesser foes like the Barbary Pirates.
This prevented hotheads from dragging us into quagmires or national suicides, such as the original War Hawks spoiling fight with both France and Great Britain in 1812. And buy-in by representatives helped ensure a united home front, not one torn apart by the partisan sniping that characterizes recent conflicts.
But despite the safeguards a formal declaration of war offers, it went out of style around the time Glenn Miller disappeared, with the U.S. last doing so in 1942 against Romania. But is it a coincidence that WWII was also the last time we achieved a clear victory everyone accepts?
Five years after V.J. Day, Harry S. Truman brushed the first coat of Crisco on this slippery slope, sending Americans to “die for a tie” in Korea under U.N. auspices, a fight for futility captured in vividly in M*A*S*H.
Then came Vietnam, begun with “military advisers” under Ike and JFK before Lyndon Johnson ramped it up into a bloodbath. LBJ was every bit as mad at his worst as King George, and was able to achieve only thanks to his brilliant wife, as Betty Boyd Caroli outlined in her book, “Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage That Made a President.”
After ignoring the First Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the paranoid Johnson imagined up a second from an inaccurate report, and Congress leapt in with both feet, authorizing “all necessary measures … to prevent further aggression,” a loophole so wide, “B.J. and the Bear” could drive their 18-wheeler through it.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Congress again punted, stating “the president has authority … to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States.” Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat, a force behind the Iraq repeal, criticized that as “a blank check,” and it’s been cashed repeatedly since.
In 1973, Congress sought to claw back its role with the War Powers Act, requiring presidents notify them in 48 hours and setting a time limit of 60 days. But James Madison might say, “A two-month war is still a war,” especially since a nuclear strike could start or end one in minutes.
In any case, presidents have obeyed the War Powers Act the way Beltway drivers obey the speed limit, and Capitol Hill has never come close to cutting off funds, even when President Obama’s spokesman declared the Act didn’t apply in Libya because Gadhafi’s guys were doing all the dying.
I often compare this post-Tonkin model to that of LBJ’s predecessor, William McKinley. When USS Maine exploded in Havana during an 1898 peace mission, our last Civil War veteran president resisted calls to fight Spain until he could martial public support, prepare the troops, and figure out what happened.
That commander in chief ignored yellow journalists screaming for blood, Congress threatening to declare war over his objections and insults such as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt saying that Mac had “no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.” (Spain solved the impasse, declaring war first.)
The U.S. of 2021 is not that of 1789, 1898 or even 1973. But that only makes it more important that Congress prepare wise laws in peacetime. We should not accept them hiding under their beds when the monsters attack, only to emerge for a crass victory lap long after we’ve buried our dead.
• Dean Karayanis is content producer for “The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show,” former Rush Limbaugh staffer and host of “History Author Show” on iHeartRadio.