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It Will Take More Than Congress to Cure America’s War Addiction

All that talk about "reclaiming" congressional war powers? Historically, Congress has applauded presidential wars.

Graves for Yemeni children killed by a Saudi-led coalition air strike (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Is Congress finally asserting itself in foreign policy? In January, legislators reintroduced a resolution that directs President Trump to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s catastrophic war in Yemen. Supporters of the resolution hope the newly Democrat-majority House will muster enough votes, just as the Senate did by a 56-41 margin in the previous Congress last December.

Congressional action on Yemen could end a particularly awful conflict that has produced mass famine and cholera. Yet many liberal pundits and legislators seem to welcome the resolution for its own proceduralist sake: Any legislative action in foreign policy is somehow good in and of itself, no matter the content of its actions.

Once the resolution passes, the coalition that supported it needs to decide which argument—the overtly anti-war or the proceduralist—to prioritize as a growing number of Americans across the political spectrum grow weary of Washington’s other military campaigns in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Although anti-war organizers rarely realize it, “reclaiming” Congress’s war powers is not necessarily a step toward peace.

You’ve probably heard the refrain on Congress and war powers, presented perennially as a cure-all for toxic conflicts ever since the Vietnam era. The last time our government formally declared war was in 1942, and since then the legislative branch has acted like a feckless “bystander” to wars initiated by the executive, and must now “reclaim,” “reassert,” or “take back” its war powers from the increasingly “unlimited authority” of the “imperial” president. It’s in the Constitution: only Congress, per Article I, Section 8, has the power to declare war.

This argument typically gives the impression that, if only proper procedure were followed, the United States would have avoided any number of disastrous entanglements—Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and more. The problem is that it’s not borne out by historical evidence.

Contrary to Beltway commentariat consensus, American bellicosity is not merely the result of uncontrolled executive branch war-making. Often forgotten is the fact that Congress has mostly supported the United States’ wars, usually with great enthusiasm. Legislators have the constitutional authority to stop and deliberate the president’s wars, but have historically been unwilling to exercise it.

The proceduralist narrative falsely assumes that Congress has “given up” its war powers. Although it’s true that Congress hasn’t officially declared war since 1942, the body has passed statutory authorizations for military operations in Lebanon in 1958 (72-19 in the Senate) and 1983 (54-46), Vietnam in 1964 (88-2), Iraq in 1991 (52-47) and 2003 (77-23), and Afghanistan in 2001 (98-0). The absence of authorizations for other military operations—the bombing campaigns in Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999, Iraq throughout much of the 1990s, and Libya in 2011, to cite a few examples—is more plausibly read not as criticism of the president’s position, but rather a desire to preemptively weasel out of responsibility if a war went badly or of a belief that a military operation didn’t require congressional authorization. Declarations of war, in that precise language, have all but disappeared, most likely because the proliferation of international laws of war in the twentieth century has made states more hesitant to call their wars “wars” to avoid unequivocally triggering application of these increasingly restrictive laws, as University of Minnesota political scientist Tanisha Fazal argued in her recent book, Wars of Law.

In the case of Vietnam, only two of Congress’s 535 members voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the 1964 law that President Johnson relied on to launch a major escalation of U.S. involvement the following year. Even J. William Fulbright, longtime Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and eventually one of the most prominent opponents of the war, spearheaded its passage, despite admitting on the eve of the Senate vote, “I do not know what [its] limits are.” More recently, the last three Democratic leaders of the Senate—Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, and Tom Daschle—all supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, along with 370 other senators and representatives. Even just this week, the Senate quietly voted 70-26 in favor of a nonbinding amendment expressing opposition to Donald Trump’s proposed plans to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

Solemn appeals to war powers proceduralism can just as often be pro-war as anti-war. Take Dick Gephardt, Democratic leader of the House from 1989 to 2003, for example. In a speech alongside President Bush and Republican leaders in the White House Rose Garden, a week before he shepherded nearly 40 percent of his party’s House votes to support the Iraq War in October 2002, he proclaimed, “Part of the majesty of our democratic achievement of a democratic governance is that on issues of war and peace, life and death, we have entrusted those decisions not just to the president, but to the Congress as a coequal branch of this government. We now take that solemn obligation.” Few would now suggest that the disastrous war in Iraq was redeemed by such reverent checks-and-balances window-dressing.

At its worst, the proceduralist argument is a handy political dodge for elected officials caught between anti-war energy and the perceived risks of taking a strong position—a way to avoid interrogating a particular war on its merits. Does this war enhance or endanger national security? Does this war advance or undermine the interests of average Americans? Is this war inflicting horrible misery on the civilians whose country is being bombed? There is often little oxygen left to discuss these first-order questions in a debate environment dominated by the issue of what role Congress should play.

This motivation was exemplified most recently by the bill proposed last year by Senators Tim Kaine and Bob Corker to replace the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the law passed days after the September 11 attacks (over Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s sole dissenting vote) that authorized the president to use force against “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the attacks and those who “harbored such organizations or persons.” Kaine tried to sell the bill by invoking the language of war powers proceduralism: “Our proposal finally… makes Congress do its job by weighing in on where, when, and with who we are at war.” Yet despite the lip service paid to an assertive Congressional role, the bill would have effectively codified Congressional acceptance of endless war: It promised to authorize military force against all of the “terrorist organizations” the U.S. is currently fighting, including ones like the Islamic State that did not exist on September 11. The proposal also placed no real barriers on the president if he wanted to add “associated” groups to the target list, promising to expand the executive branch’s wars, not limit them.

Calling on Congress to assert its war powers also functions as a way for pro-war pundits to establish pseudo-opposition to unpopular wars. A few days before President Trump launched airstrikes against Syrian military targets last year, Tim Kaine tweeted, “Assad should face consequences for his atrocities, but Trump is a president, not a king - he needs to come to Congress if he wants to initiate military action.” This superficial posturing reaps the political benefits of opposing an unpopular president without actually opposing his wars. Would Tim Kaine vote for strikes against the Syrian government, and why or why not? Thanks to this sort of rhetorical position, his constituents never found out.

If we want to get serious about ending or even just reining in America’s wars, the first step is to talk about war directly. Our domestic policy procedures shouldn’t be mythologized as a guarantee of good foreign policy. Anti-war advocates who use the proceduralist appeal must understand that calling on Congress to “reclaim” its war powers is by no means inherently an anti-war argument, as countless pro-war proceduralists have made clear. Ultimately, while law can set the procedures for doing politics, it cannot be a substitute for politics: In an era of perpetual war, the only way to get members of Congress to vote for peace is to convince them, and their constituents, that endless war must end.