Who Decides About War? What About the People? - Brave New Films
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Who Decides About War? What About the People?

By John Nichols at The Nation

The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has reached its “sell-by…” date.

A majority of Americans now tell pollsters the mission was a mistake. Ninety-eight members of the House – including liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans – have cosponsored Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern’s resolution asking the Pentagon to develop an exit strategy.

Unfortunately, the generals who run wars, and the defense contractors who profit from them, want to keep U.S. troops on the ground in that distant land. And President Obama is under pressure to surge tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops into “the graveyard of empires.”

The people have wisely turned against an occupation that has cost the United States too many lives and too many hundreds of billions of dollars while only making a bad situation worse for the Afghan people — especially, according to feminists in Kabul, women.

Unfortunately, the people do not have the power to end wars that they know have gone awry.

So it falls to Congress to demand an exit strategy.

We’ll explore the efforts to do that on Friday night in Manhattan, when Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and I join Congressman McGovern for a forum and film screening with filmmaker Robert Greenwald, director of Rethink Afghanistan.

Ramping up support for McGovern’s resolution is Job 1 in the struggle to bring the troops home and cede responsibility for Afghanistan to the people who live there – perhaps with an assist from an international entity, such as the United Nations, that can offer peacekeeping and development aid.

The deeper questions raised by the Afghan imbroglio will be explored Friday and Saturday in Washington, where the “Who Decides About War?” conference on war powers, law and democracy is being held at the Georgetown Law School.

The conference is a project of Ben Manski and the Liberty Tree Foundation — a think tank that actually thinks about new ways to address fundamental issues — and the “Bring the Guard Home! It’s the Law” campaign. With backing from the National Lawyers Guild at Georgetown Law School, Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Democrats.com, the Institute for Policy Studies, After Downing Street, CODEPINK-Women for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, the National Coalition for Nonviolent Resistance, Peace Action USA and Progressive Democrats of America, the “Who Decides About War?” call notes, correctly, that, “The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have revived and deepened longstanding questions about how and by whom war and peace should be decided under our Constitution and in faith with our democratic aspirations.”

Manski and his colleagues are asking core questions:

• How can our democracy set in place consistent and durable criteria for considering when or if to use military force, within a broad range of scenarios that might–or might not–challenge national security or threaten world peace?• Are our political institutions sufficiently robust to maintain and apply “consistent and durable” criteria in the face of the unforeseeable circumstances that typically precede the consideration of using military force?

• What is the proper composition, structure, and role of military forces in a modern democracy? Do the U.S. Armed Forces, as currently organized, best serve democracy? How should we respond to the increased reliance of the United States on Private Military Companies?

• When state National Guard units are called into federal military service, should states have a clear and defined role in evaluating whether that call up is proper and in accordance with the law?

• What is the proper balance of forces between the Guard and rest of the Armed Forces? Does the concept of the all-volunteer army need to be revisited, and if so, what are the options for the future?

• How should the decision about going to war be made, serving national security and honoring the constitutional system of checks and balances?

• Has the War Powers Act served its intended purposes, and how should it be updated or replaced?

• What should be the role of Congress in authorizing the use of military force, within a broad range of scenarios that might–or might not–challenge national security or threaten world peace? If the United States commences the use of military force, is there a role for Congress beyond its initial authorization of force and later appropriations in support of the military action? May an authorization for use of military force be conditional, and if so, should the conditions be enforceable? What mode of enforcement should be available?

• Should the scope of the President’s Article 2 powers as commander-in-chief be more clearly defined, and if so, how can that clarity be achieved, given that every war is unique and the role of the commander-in-chief hard to define in advance?

The most thought-provoking of the questions may well be this one: “What can we learn from the history of the 1930s-era campaign for a War Referendum Amendment, together with the 1970s-era People Power Over War Amendment, both of which would have established a deliberative national referendum process on war?”

The answer, for those of us who take democracy seriously, is: “A lot!”

First off, we should recognize that, in the relatively recent past there was serious debate in the United States about how the people could be brought into the process of what the founders referred to as “chaining the dogs of war.”

The drafters of the Constitution intended to make it impossible for a president to lead the country into war without an explicit declaration from Congress and periodic reviews by the House and Senate to determine whether an international entanglement should continue.

Unfortunately, as America developed what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described to as an “imperial presidency,” and as commanders-in-chief began to use their bully pulpits and the full force of modern media to promote their wars of whim – and the endless occupations that are their byproducts – constitutional checks and balances decayed.

As long ago as 1914, when then Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette were agitating to keep the U.S. out of the European conflict that would become World War I, they began to talk of creating a new check and balance that rested the power to declare most wars in the people.

La Follette’s proposal to amend the Constitution to require “a popular referendum before declaring war” would, by 1924, have platform support from both the senator’s independent progressive movement and the Democratic Party. It would eventually spawn a formal amendment sponsored in the 1930s by Indiana Congressman Louis Ludlow, which read in Part:

“Except in the event of an invasion of the United States or its Territorial possessions and attack upon its citizens residing therein, the authority of Congress to declare war shall not become effective until confirmed by a majority of all votes cast thereon in a Nation-wide referendum. Congress, when it deems a national crisis to exist, may by concurrent resolution refer the question of war or peace to the citizens of the States, the question to be voted on being, Shall the United States declare war on ________?”

Backed by close to 200 House members, the amendment was, according to a Gallup Poll conducted in 1936, supported by 75 percent of all Americans.

A slightly different amendment, backed by a dozen senators, would have given voters authority to declare or reject war except in the case of “attack by armed forces, actual or immediately threatened…”

Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette Jr. told the Senate in 1939 that the amendment was needed to break the cycle where presidents “lay the groundwork for war” and then at an opportune moment asked Congress “to rubber stamp a declaration of war…”

The idea of giving the people power over war-making was renewed in the 1970s by members of Congress who wanted to prevent future Vietnams. The undeclared Iraq War has inspired dozens of local referendum and town hall meeting votes calling for immediate withdrawal.

And, now, Manski and his compatriots have raised the issue anew – along with Liberty Tree’s wise suggestion that states be given greater authority over National Guard deployments to warzones. America has so broken faith with its founding traditions – especially George Washington’s encouragement call on the country to avoid entangling alliances – that proposals to check and balance imperial presidents are dismissed as unrealistic. And the idea of resting the power to declare wars with the people who must fight and pay for them are ridiculed.

But if America is ever going to renew its small “r” republican traditions, let alone realize its small “d” democratic potential, it is hard to imagine a better place to begin than with the question: “Who Decides About War?”