War Powers, War Lies: Part 25: Mission Accomplished

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War Powers, War Lies: A Series:

Part 25: Conclusion: Mission Accomplished


Published in the Maryland Daily Record August 27, 2007 


            Back in February 2005 I wrote these words in this column: “The U.S. is at war.  Our soldiers die daily, our treasure is poured out, and our international prestige hemorrhages.  No one has asked us citizens if we desire it.  No one has asked Congress, or at least not properly.  No one has leveled with us, and especially no one leveled with us when it could have mattered.  And daily we are fed a diet of lies.”  (Original Intent, 2/4/05.)  The only statement there that does not still apply two and a half years later is the declaration that no one has asked the citizenry.  The 2006 election was transparently a plebiscite on the War, and the War lost.  So far, though, the voice of the public has made no difference.  The prediction of Pierce Butler, a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, that the president “will not make war but when the Nation will support it” has proven laughably shortsighted.


            I have said throughout this series of articles that only one voice matters in matters of the wars our country wages, and that is the president’s.  If he is determined to wage war, no power can realistically stop him.  The Founders failed us on this one.  It had been their intent to make wars hard to start.  They did so by entrusting the power to declare wars to not to the President but to Congress.  This was a mistake; the Founders already knew that wars were frequently begun without declaration.  In tying Congress’ power to the formality of declaration, then, the Founders were asking for trouble, taking it on faith that presidents would not start wars without the formality.


            Presidents have routinely betrayed the Founders’ faith, and in our hundreds of military adventures they have seldom asked Congress for a declaration, although sometimes lesser forms of assent have been sought.  One trouble with lesser formalities is that they can be characterized and sought as something else.  For instance, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was voted on with the assurance that it would not be treated as authorization for a land war in Asia; later Congress found that that was exactly how it would be used.  (Tonkin Spook, 3/25/05.)


            A parallel problem is that the definition of war is slippery, and presidents have taken grievous advantage.  (Imperfect War, 2/25/05.)  If war is ultimately defined as what Congress declares, then any undeclared armed conflict the President wages by definition is not war, and hence the president need not await a declaration.  Thus John Adams’ naval skirmishes with the French, Abraham Lincoln’s full-fledged struggles with the insurgent South, or the Cold War which embraced all the presidencies between Truman’s and Bush 41’s and in which there were never direct military engagements with our principal adversaries – none of these engagements qualified as war.  These most important projections of military power were started without the formality of a declaration, and our courts never blew the whistle.


            We have seen, as well, that Congress has failed to find any mechanism to control ongoing “imperfect” wars.  The War Powers Resolution has proven toothless.  (Outgunned, 6/3/05.)  And we have recently witnessed a very public display of the limits of the Congressional power of the purse.  Effective use of that power requires something almost never found in American politics: a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress willing to explain to a jingoistic electorate a vote to defund our at-risk sons and daughters.  With one more election we may now actually reach that rare point; but before the resulting Congress takes office it will have been five years since the beginning of the war.


            Presidential war powers are awesome.  In addition to the ability to send the world’s best-equipped military machine[Comment1]  into action, presidents have at their disposal legions of special forces and militarized CIA units to perform clandestine and covert missions, and in addition have developed proxy armies in the military forces of other countries, particularly in this hemisphere.  The latter, trained especially at the School of the Americas, a/k/a Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation, give deniability to military operations against anyone standing up against a neocolonial status quo.  (War Off the Books, 7/8/05.)  Add to that the sole power to deploy at a moment’s notice a nuclear arsenal that could simultaneously wage our largest war and end history as we know it – all undeclared, of course.  (MADness, 6/25/07; Metastasis, 7/30/07.)


            Broad as presidential war powers are, the present administration has pursued a relentless agenda of expanding them.  It has created a system of more or less hidden gulags around the world in defiance of our treaty obligations, and fought tooth and nail against any judicial review,  justifying this as a war power.  (Captive Taxonomy, 8/5/05.)  It has practiced and tried to legitimize torture (Playbook, 8/26/05), expanded the legal process of rendition into the legally questionable extraordinary rendition, perhaps violated U.S. law against assassination, and shipped covertly held prisoners of war to countries where it is known they will be tortured or killed (Away Games, 10/28/05).  It has created a parallel system of transparently phony military and quasi-military courts, i.e. military commissions and combatant status review tribunals, whose real function is to maintain custody of detainees for as long as the White House thinks best, not to reach any bona fide determinations as to whether they belong in custody.  (Kangaroo, 11/18/05.)


            And as an adjunct to a permanent state of undeclared war, the administration has sought permanently to limit governmental accountability in various ways.  It has promulgated an official policy of complying as little as possible with the Freedom of Information Act, and defied the Presidential Records Act.  It has violated the law requiring declassification of documents, has (largely without admitting it) begun a program of reclassifying previously declassified documents, created legally unauthorized forms of classification, and removed documents from governmental reading rooms and websites.  When enormities like the warrantless NSA wiretap program and the foreign gulag are revealed by the press, the government vilifies the messenger.  This too in the name of war.  (Mine to Know, 2/23/07.)


            How is it that the populace, which pays so dearly for misbegotten and ill-conducted wars, has not risen up against the constitutional monstrosity that presidential war powers have become and are increasingly becoming?  There are several answers.


            At the bottom of them all is the fact that presidents lie about their wars.  They all do.  President Polk challenged Mexican sovereignty by stationing troops on Mexican soil, and when the Mexicans defended themselves, Polk obtained a declaration of war telling the nation of the Mexican attack but not the U.S. provocation.  Franklin Roosevelt lied about Lend Lease and about his intentions to lead America into World War II.  He lied about having sold out Poland to Russia to speed the end of that war.  (Willingly Deceived, 4/29/05.)  And, as noted, Johnson lied to ease us down the last step to total engagement in the Vietnam War, knowing that there had been no Tonkin Gulf attack.


            This administration, however, has probably pushed war lying to its worst extreme.  It lied about why we were going to war (the elusive truth apparently being that the object was to satisfy the geopolitical grand design of certain theorists within the administration).  (Why We Fought, 1/27/06.)  It lied that there was such a thing as a Global War on Terror.  (Not GWOT, 2/24/06.)  It lied that it was really engaged in a military struggle with al Qaeda, when in fact it had not been defending the country seriously against that organization either before or after 9/11.  (The War That Wasn’t, 3/31/06.)  It lied to itself that it had a reasonable plan for occupying Iraq.  (Super Bowl, 5/26/06.)  It lied to the world that it truly believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, when the only reliable intelligence pointed in the opposite direction.  (Weapons of Mutual Deception, 6/30/06.)


            But this goes beyond lies.  Historically, war opponents, who usually have a tendency to dispel lies with inconvenient truths, have been the object of prosecution and imprisonment to silence them.  Though the struggle never ends, over two and half centuries we have gradually established the First Amendment as a bulwark against such campaigns.  We followed that story from John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Laws through Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to imprison Confederate sympathizers, through Wilson’s efforts to imprison anyone who spoke out against World War I or the draft, through the Truman purges of suspected Communists, and through the McCarthyite hysteria, in the wake of which the First Amendment finally largely prevailed.  (Speechcrimes and Groupcrimes, 8/25/06; Wilson’s Gag, 9/29/06; Proxies, 10/27/06; Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, 1/26/07.)


            This hard-won progress, however, means little without a press that reports proscribed truths.  It usually does not.  The press was well aware that the Johnson administration must be lying about Tonkin, and let it slide.  And in the runup to the current war, instead of asking the inconvenient questions, the press gave critical credibility to the “aluminum tubes” story, did not ask questions of the White House about the International Atomic Energy Commission’s authoritative dissent, editorialized overwhelmingly in favor of the war, almost ignored the peace movement, and in general made an honest public discussion impossible until it was far too late – until we were already impaled on Iraq.  (Day Late, Dollar Short, 4/2/07.)


            Yet blaming presidents and the press alone would leave us out.  We crave those lies.  It must be faced; we are a warlike people much of the time.  By and large war has been good to us and for us.  And we have historically been willing to commit great atrocities like genocide against Native Americans, area bombing and nuclear warfare to satisfy our war lusts.  (Willingly Deceived; Not One Stone, 5/29/07.)


            And yet we are not always consumed by those lusts.  We are always somewhere on a spectrum between a proper view of war (i.e. that it is a necessity of last resort) and the cowboyish view that presently holds sway in the administration.  At the moment, despite all the lies and despite a press that only slowly woke up to its constitutionally-contemplated duty of counteracting them, the cowboys’ outlook is found only in the administration, not in the Congress or in the populace.  But the power of the presidency can frustrate the will of the people, at least until the next election.  And this is a great tragedy.


            Is there any remedy? 


            I am skeptical that we can legislate one; the practical failure of both the War Powers Resolution and the power of the purse establish that.  Nor can we easily amend our constitution to give Congress greater leverage or force the courts to review presidential assertions of war powers.  Amending the constitution is very hard to do.  And the practical problems of figuring out what might replace the present system are daunting.  Amendment is certainly worth thinking about, but how to amend is not immediately apparent.


            For the immediate future, therefore, the remedies seem to be simple but nearly unattainable.  We must begin electing presidents who respect the constitutional separation of powers and the people’s right to the truth.  History has not supplied us with many examples, even among presidents who were in many respects admirable.


            We need to elect legislators who are not demagogues or in fear of demagogues.  And that is hard because flag-waving demagogues so often drive the electorate.  And legislators want the electorate to reelect them.


            We need also to obtain from the large and irresponsible conglomerates that own most of it, a press with courage and honesty, more committed to telling the truth than to entertaining the masses and pleasing advertisers.  Right.


            As hard as it may seem to achieve these things, though, little else will suffice.  And so we must work to elect presidents who accept limits, and dauntless legislators, and we must use our consumer power to force the press to demand straight answers to the important questions.  That effort, already afoot, is a critical struggle of our time.  Good luck to it; good government and honest debate would countenance only better and, no doubt, fewer wars.


Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn


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