Congress Finds its War Powers and Weaknesses

It’s possible that the U.S. Congress will for the first time use the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to end a war — the one on Yemen. This would be wonderful. There are some caveats.

The bill now in both houses has outrageous and truly bizarre loopholes in it. Some of its supporters last year were apparently pretending to support it while fending off antiwar primary challengers, and the closeness of a failed vote is never any indication of how easily one can get to a successful vote. Trump has threatened to veto. Trump could also simply violate the law with the clear expectation that he would not be impeached for it. And Yemen is unlikely to ever fully recover.

But none of that is what worries me.

What worries me are the other several current wars and dozens of permanent occupations, and Congressional efforts to impose a ban on ending them. Bills have now been introduced to prevent the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria or South Korea to anything below certain levels, unless numerous conditions are met.

So, Congress could conceivably, for the first time, assert itself both to end a war and simultaneously to prevent the end of a war. Both steps would be a blow to supporters of temporary despotism. Both would be a win for the Constitutional idea of a country run by an elected legislature. Together they might create more of an opening to demand that Congress vote one way or the other on each existing war and on potential new ones. Then we, the people, might really take on the uphill unfair struggle against the war profiteers to win each of those votes.

But the combination of developments could still be a net loss. The power to decree that a war not end might do even more damage than the power to end one, for at least four reasons.

First, Congress would be assuming the authority to decree that a crime be committed. U.S. warmaking in Syria and most other places violates the United Nations Charter, as well as the Kellogg Briand Pact. These treaties are the supreme law of the land in the United States under the U.S. Constitution.

Second, making wars and occupations permanent through legislation establishes a different level of empire and of imperial thinking. It removes the pretense that military forces have been sent somewhere to improve a situation, after which they will eventually depart. It makes clear to the world and to the U.S. public that the goal is permanent empire. Why should North Korea negotiate or take steps toward disarmament with a government that will not and cannot ever reciprocate?

Third, the bills to prevent withdrawals use the power of the purse. They forbid the spending of U.S. funds to withdraw U.S. troops. This is a rare use of the power of the purse, in theory much to be commended. However, not withdrawing troops costs more money than does withdrawing troops. So this is a requirement to spend more money in the guise of a restriction on spending money. The Pentagon is simply going to adore that trick becoming standard practice.

Fourth, Congress seems to be moving toward the most significant assertion of its powers for the stupidest of reasons. That is, while many in Congress may be responding to public demand or morality on Yemen, many seem to be responding to unquestioning militarism or partisanship or worse on Syria and Korea. If the U.S. president were a Democrat, I guarantee you that the number of Democrats in Congress trying to oppose him on Korea would be radically altered simply by partisanship. It’s not that long since the United States was pretending it didn’t have troops in Syria, or since having troops in Syria was considered outrageous. Now, out of partisanship or militarism or an anti-Russian pursuit of World War III, attitudes have changed.

Perhaps there’s a way to take advantage of the use of the power of the purse. Does anyone who has a boat favor peace on earth? What about a ship? What about a plane? Do any airlines dislike war? What about any nations? What about the United Nations? How about war tax resisters? Would any of them put up some funding to bring U.S. troops home from wars and occupations? It would cost South Korea less to provide cruise ships to take U.S. troops to California than Trump is asking South Korea to pay for its own occupation. Should we start an online fundraising campaign? I mean, the Pentagon has never turned down money before, right?

I suppose we couldn’t really go through with it. If the Pentagon could use private funds to end a war it would be sure to use other private funds to launch five more. Remember the Contras? But couldn’t we make a statement? “I pledge to contribute to the U.S. government funding to be used exclusively for bringing troops home from wars.” Congress would still have to change the law, though, and we’d be digging into our shallow pockets while billionaires stood aside or spied on us or ran for president. So, in the end, the simpler solution is probably best: Offer an amendment to the permawar bills that allows bringing the troops home to be paid for by picking out one planned F-35 and not building it.

4 thoughts on “Congress Finds its War Powers and Weaknesses”

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