The reaction to President Obama's forthcoming speech on Afghanistan is proof that our Founding Fathers knew something very important more than 200 years ago that the current commander in chief is learning now: It’s a lot harder to stop a war than it is to start one.
When the Founders wrote the Constitution in 1787, they had just finished a gruesome war for freedom, in which patriots had to fight and kill their brothers, the Tories, and their cousins, the British. The Revolutionary War ended officially in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, but British troops still occupied U.S. territory in the Midwest and encouraged Indian raids on American settlers on the frontier.
The Founders also feared the United States would go the way of ancient Rome, from a republic to an empire governed by a military dictator.
So James Madison and the others thought the best way to stop a war and nip a military dictatorship in the bud was to design a system that would make it very hard for the United States to get into a war in the first place. The Founders made the president the commander in chief of the armed forces in Article II of the Constitution, but they reserved for Congress the power to declare war in Article 1. The Founders built this system of military checks and balances into the Constitution with the full knowledge that it would make it difficult for the United States to go to war. But they figured that a decision that might result in the deaths of many Americans should be difficult to make. [Vote now: Is Obama handling the Libya crisis the right way?]
Unfortunately, the military balance of power in the Constitution has gone the way of the snail mail and the electric typewriter. The last time Congress declared war was in 1941, but since then, we have fought wars in Korea, Vietnam, and in Iraq twice. We have been fighting in Afghanistan since 2003 and now the United States, excuse me, NATO, is at war in Libya. Presidents always use euphemisms to avoid the dreaded “w” word. Korea was a “police action.” Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia was not an invasion, it was an “incursion.” After President Obama gave the order for American Naval and Air Forces to attack Qadhafi, Tom Donilon, the president’s national security adviser, described the episode as a “kinetic military action.” Whatever that is.
Several members of Congress, including the unlikely duo Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, have sued President Obama in federal court. They allege that the president violated Article I of the Constitution by going to war without a congressional declaration, or even much consultation. The Obama administration defends itself against the suit with argument that only a Philadelphia lawyer would appreciate. The administration argues that the United States is not fighting in Libya, NATO is. This argument ignores the reality that NATO is a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States, which provides the organization most of its personnel, budget, and equipment. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]
If a war against Qadhafi is vital for humanitarian reasons or to our national security, President Obama should do what the Founders would want him to do, which is to ask for a congressional declaration of war against Libya. It’s time for the president to make his case to Congress and the American people.