(!!) Troops occupy Congress ...

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Posted by andreas from p3EE3C305.dip.t-dialin.net ( on Tuesday, November 26, 2002 at 12:41PM :

Asia Times
Nov 27, 2002

Middle East


Troops occupy Congress ...

By Stephen Blank

[Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks PA.]
Two recent votes by the US Congress - one authorizing the creation of a Department of Homeland Security and another authorizing military action against Iraq - raise profound constitutional questions. Regardless of the merits of attacking Iraq and of creating this department, and without considering the current political composition of the White House and Congress, these votes continue and extend a disturbing trend. Evidently no Congress can prevent a sitting president from committing the armed forces, prestige and national interests of the United States to a war, if that is what the president really intends to do.

Nor is Congress apparently ready to offer an alternative when it comes to reorganizing the institutions that provide for American national security. This does not mean that wars that grow out of unilateral presidential action are unjustified or against the national interest. World War II in Europe, Korea, the Gulf War of 1991 and Kosovo were justified wars fought in the national interest. Yet President George W Bush is nonetheless extending a dangerous precedent, for it is clear that the constitution's balance of power with regard to questions of war and peace has been broken, perhaps irretrievably. Nor is this a partisan assessment; President Bill Clinton, too, did not seek congressional authorization for the war in Kosovo.

Today presidents have too much power and too many tools at their disposal for Congress to refuse their wish to attack foreign adversaries, especially if the president has already committed troops or given guarantees of commitment to foreign powers. Thus a dangerous imbalance of power has developed at the heart of the American political system. Future presidents, lacking checks upon their power, may extend current practice and their power to create, as in Vietnam, functional equivalents of a declaration of war that lead to disaster.

While this large subject requires serious and extensive debate, certain consequences of this erosion of Congressional power are already visible. As Congress' power to check presidential war-making has eroded, a vacuum has developed. Because nature abhors a vacuum, the media and the military have asserted their power to define the conditions under which the US may go to war. Today the media's power to create a climate of public opinion is such that it can generate a clamor to "do something" in a crisis even if that something is unclear, infeasible or misconceived. Because the media is not a monolith, its message may be divided and diffused, and carry no specific injunction beyond simply acting decisively. But there is no denying the power of the so-called "CNN effect" upon policy makers.

The power of the media to influence the policy debate clearly stems from Congress' inability to shape or regulate this debate alone and to the fact that it controls to some degree Congressional access to the public. Moreover, the media's ubiquity and constant presence, as well as its simplistic message, allow it to fill the vacuum created by the weakening of Congressional power to hold a president accountable for American defense policy. Thus the media has to some degree replaced Congress. But because of its diffused and simplistic nature, it cannot replace Congress in conducting a substantive and thorough investigation and debate over questions of war and peace.

The US military has also stepped into this breach. Many scholars, particularly Richard Kohn in a powerful essay in the Naval War College Review, point to the military's increasing willingness to assert its views concerning the conditions over which American forces can be deployed. Indeed, some come close to courses of action that could be construed as insubordination. Public criticism of prospective scenarios like then-chief of staff Colin Powell's disparagement of plans to invade Bosnia, or covert leaks of possible war plans against Iraq, reflect the feeling among prominent military leaders and ranking officers that they have a right and duty to attempt to legislate on questions of war and peace.

Unfortunately, the armed forces are neither equipped nor constitutionally mandated to assume this responsibility. In fact, their attempts to do so may overstep the boundaries of a proper civil-military relationship in our democracy. Congress' abdication of power or failure to sustain it against the growth of executive power is not a license for the military to arrogate those powers to itself. Restoring the balance of power among all those with legitimate input into deciding questions of war and peace cannot mean replacing Congressional power with media or military power. Instead of restoring the lost balance that further distorts it.

Without prejudice to the war on Iraq, we clearly must address these issues of power and constitutional prerogatives sooner rather than later. We cannot count that unchecked presidential decision-making will invariably lead to sound strategic decisions. The very fact that we must now revisit Iraq attests to our strategic failure in the last war despite our military victory then. Vietnam provided the impetus for attempts to restrain presidential power over war and peace because it brought about the greatest defeat and constitutional crisis in American history. Though that effort was made, it has proven insufficient. Must we undergo another Vietnam to again attempt to restore the lost balance?

(The views expressed here do not in any way represent those of the US Army, Defense Department or the government.)

-- andreas
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