War and the Imperial Presidency

On Tuesday, Rachel Maddow led off her show with a brilliant, 22-minute rant against the return of all the failed Iraq war architects and cheerleaders to the nation’s airwaves, now that Iraq is once again descending into visible chaos (apologies for the ad; I can’t edit the MSNBC footage out):

The entire thing is worth a watch if you were awake during the 2002-2005 era, since it truly is maddening to see people like Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith and the Cheneys (Dick and Liz), etc, who by rights ought to be manning a postal station in Nome, Alaska as their only involvement with government today, being once more invited onto the Sunday political shows and seemingly every other news show and treated as if their opinion on the current crisis in Iraq was worth listening to instead of being laughed bitterly off the stage. Watch the whole thing, if you have the time. Maddow broadens her indictment to include the equally horrible media coverage of the faux-scandal over the Benghazi affair the GOP and tea party have been pushing for the past couple of years, as well.

The last few minutes of Maddow’s rant, however, were where the rubber really met the road for me. Beginning at about 18:35, Maddow turns from excoriating the media for sloppy thinking and poor public service on Iraq and Benghazi, and onto what could actually be done about it. Yay! Solutions! It’s part of what we love about Rachel Maddow – she doesn’t just complain, she often tries to suggest ways in which things could be changed for the better.

In this case, Maddow’s solution was to resort to laws already on the books, specifically Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution (“The Congress shall have Power…to declare war”) and the War Powers Act. Maddow pointed out, quite rightly, that it is historically Congress’ – and not the President’s – role to engage the nation in military conflict. That distinction has been muddied since the end of World War II by increasing arrogation to itself of the executive branch (and acquiescence of the legislative) of this power. The first and most famous instance was in Vietnam, but then in a series of smaller and shorter conflicts up until the insanely twisted rationalizations and assertions of executive power by the Cheney-Addington axis of power within the White House during the Bush administration during Afghanistan and Iraq.

Maddow pointed out that President Obama is – as he is in seemingly everything he does – being second-guessed and opposed by Congressional Republicans, and her solution is an elegant one: have them take an Article 1, Section 8 vote on committing to war in Iraq, for a THIRD time. Her guess – one I share – is that doing so would shut up the Congressional critics very, very quickly, just as it did in Syria. Congressional Republicans have proven they always want to be able to bash and second-guess the President, preferably in a consequence-free environment. What they don’t want is to be forced to put their money where their mouths are on controversial issues that might cost them politically. Having to take a roll call vote on something as serious as war, for which they would forever be accountable, is something they won’t do unless they feel certain.

When it comes to Iraq, anyone who tells you they feel certain, they know exactly what to do, is not only lying to you, they’re doing so because they believe there is no downside for so doing. Maddow’s point was: call their bluff. Make Congress vote on whether to send yet more American blood and treasure into the Iraqi sands for a third time. Follow the existing laws and procedures for such a weighty undertaking, and bellicose Congressional Republicans will suddenly find something else to do, like write more angry letters to the IRS about the Lois Lerner emails.

The White House seemed to understand this as well. When the usual suspects in Congress (and elsewhere) were beating the drums of war to invade (or at least bomb) Syria, President Obama called a Rose Garden press conference to say he would defer to Congress’ judgment about whether to declare war there…and they backed down. We did not send troops – or even bombers – to Syria, and likely avoided yet another intractable and costly mess in the middle east.

One thing the Obama White House has been steadfast and resolute on – indeed, a large part of what they have built the Obama brand on – is that the era of long wars is winding down. We are bringing to a sensible and responsible close the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’ve said time and again. George Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement before leaving office saying all US troops would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and President Obama has kept that agreement, while seeming to relish also being able to live up to the spirit of his steadfast opposition to the Iraq War and to “dumb wars” in general. The conflict in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, and the conflict in Iraq – at least the US involvement in it – was flatly declared over by none other than the President himself, at his 2012 Democratic Convention Speech with the entire country watching.

Or not.

Yesterday, the White House met with Congressional leaders, not to tell them to put their money where their mouths are as Maddow suggested, and as they’d done in Syria, but instead to inform Congress that the President feels he does not need additional Congressional permission to pursue ANY military objectives in Iraq.

What the actual FUCK?? Under what authority does the Obama administration believe the President does not need Congressional buy-in for military operations? And the answer was: the same 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress passed to authorize George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq in the first place.

What’s scariest about this assertion that a war the President himself flatly declared over can now be resurrected from the ash-heap of history is that in one way, it doesn’t even matter at this point if the President ends up using this power he has now revealed he believes he possesses. In terms of the administration’s view on executive power and separation of powers, the eventual decision on whether to send troops as combat soldiers, or as “advisers,” or to send only air support or do nothing at all is largely irrelevant at this point; the administration’s position has – sadly – been made very clear. In Syria, it was clear the administration did not consider it a good idea to engage militarily, and – just as Maddow suggested they do in the current conflict – they called Congressional Republicans’ bluff by asking them to take the lead on deciding matters of war. Most of us on the left who had spent the Bush years tearing out our hair at the overreach and danger of the imperial nature of the George W. Bush Presidency rejoiced at hearing that the new President – OUR President – clearly understood that, and clearly respected the separation of powers. “See,” we thought? “He asked Congress to lead on Syria!” Unfortunately, the administration’s deference to precedent appears to have been far less a matter of principle than it was simply a canny strategy for shutting up his Congressional GOP critics who were trying to force the President to take action he didn’t want to take. Returning to a 2001 statute giving a previous President vague and over-broad power to wage war as his justification for bypassing Congress proves two things:

  1. That President Obama never really believed materially differently from Dick Cheney and David Addington about who REALLY gets to call the shots with regard to making war. When the chips are down, the Imperial Presidency rules.  And
  2. That declaring the Iraq war over was merely a numbers-boosting, base-pacifying publicity stunt. After all, if you’re using the authorization that permitted the initial invasion as your justification for returning, then the war was never truly over, now was it?

Sorry, Barack: if you believe you can order any and all military options while merely informing (but not deferring to) Congress, by invoking a resolution giving a previous President authorization to use force in a conflict you’ve publicly declared over and done, then you are as much a practitioner of the Imperial Presidency as was your predecessor. All you lack is an Addington.

I can’t decide if it’s the cynical embrace of the mantle of support for separation of powers when it suited (Syria) that’s more galling, or the notion that it was all bullshit in the end, anyway.