An Offer We Can’t Refuse

The president wants to replace or refine the Authorization for the Use of Military Force – we should.

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President Obama kicked off the long Memorial Day weekend with a speech which had a request that you hardly get from a president or anybody else in Washington. The president asked Congress to take away some of his power.  This is not the kind of offer that comes along very often, so Congress should snap it up while it's still on the table.

President Obama asked Congress to replace or refine the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress passed after the al-Qaida attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11. President George W. Bush used the authorization as a blank check to justify illegal renditions, drone attacks, indefinite detention and just about anything else he and Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to do. Reduction in presidential authority with the repeal of authorization would mean more power for the federal legislative branch to review and restrain the president's actions.

In his speech last week, the president also suggested the creation of a special federal court – like the court created to monitor federal wiretaps authorized under Federal Intelligence Security Act – to review drone strikes against American citizens abroad.

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

Even American citizens suspected of terrorism deserve their constitutional rights. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that Americans are owed due process under the law before they are deprived of life, liberty or property. Giving a military officer the power to kill an American suspected of a crime is not due process. President Obama admitted in his speech that drone strikes had killed four American citizens including the 16-year-old son of one of the suspected terrorists. Involving federal judges to review the constitutionality of drone strikes would mean more power for federal judicial branch to review and restrain the president's actions.

We desperately need a limit on presidential military authority.

Our founding fathers were pretty clear that they wanted the president and Congress to work together in war. Article I gives Congress the power to declare war. Article II makes the president the commander in chief of the armed forces. The founders reserved the right for Congress to start a war and gave the commander in chief the authority to fight it. 

The founders felt that going to war was an important decision so they decided to make it very hard to do. Many of the founders had witnessed the devastation caused by the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars so they knew how deadly military action was. Unfortunately it has become way too easy for the president to start a war. We have fought in many conflicts since Congress last used its power to declare war in December of 1941. If the president wants to go to war, he does so without much congressional scrutiny.  It shouldn't be that simple. Since World War II, Congress has allowed presidents to fight in Vietnam and in Iraq under false pretenses without a congressional declaration. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Congress is as much to blame as the president. Members of Congress have let presidents walk all over the legislative branch. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Iraq War resolution both were based on incidents fabricated by Presidents Johnson and Bush to justify executive military action. The Tonkin resolution was based on an attack on an American warship which never happened. The Iraqi resolution was based on the presence of weapons mass destruction that didn't even exist. Resolutions aren't declarations of war. Both resolutions were very vague and gave both presidents carte blanche to do whatever they wanted without congressional approval. And once a president starts a war, it is difficult for Congress to cut funding while our troops are in harm's way.

Congress should have made it a lot harder for George W. Bush to invade Iraq.

The rush to invade Iraq was a disaster. Congress should have asked the questions that Bush 43 and his national security team failed to ask. What happens after we depose Saddam Hussein? Act in haste and repent in leisure. And there's a lot for the U.S. to repent.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Does the U.S. Need to Rework the War on Terror?]

The invasion and occupation of Iraq was a waste of lives of 4,400 young Americans in their prime. Thousands more came home with severe psychological problems or without arms of legs. And for what? Yes, we got rid of Saddam. But in the process of killing the dictator, we have already spent more than $1 billion and, lost the lives of thousands of young Americans and pushed Iraq closer to our arch enemy in the region, Iran.  Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died and the country still borders on anarchy. And while we were fighting this pointless war, our real adversary, the Chinese, used the distraction to build up their economy and their military.

In his speech last week, President Obama said that unlimited military authority is a threat to democracy and puts "America on a perpetual wartime footing" God knows he's right about that. This type of major reform was what I was hoping for when I supported Barack Obama in 2008. It's time to rethink, replace and rejuvenate our national security policy to make sure tragedies like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq happen again. I only hope Congress takes President Obama up on his offer.

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