Well-known and outspoken former US Congressman Paul Findley talks about the dangers of military intervention abroad and how it can spiral out of control causing catastrophic and costly consequences...
Our initial involvement with only “advisors” in Vietnam illustrates how a minor military intrusion abroad can mushroom into a major national tragedy. We must not suppose that our recent war measures - our violent, deadly adventure in Libya, the lethal bombings by drone aircraft in at least four nations in the Middle East, and our current support of rebels in the civil war now underway in Syria – are trivial affairs. All are fraught with danger. They were undertaken and sustained without congressional approval.
The Libyan morass and fallout stay in the headlines. So do deaths by US drone war planes. The most recent estimate of total deaths is 4,700. Most of them were accomplished by invasion of sovereign territory and thus are acts of war. Each killing creates anti-American rage among Muslims similar to the anti-Muslim fury US families still feel a decade after 9/11 and one year after three US deaths in Benghazi. Drone killings are few in total when contrasted with the deaths of many tens of thousands of Muslims caused by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They violate the Constitutional guarantee of judicial due process.
THE POWER OF CONGRESS
The control of war powers is imbedded in our constitutional history. In the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, the status of the King of England as commander-in-chief of the armed forces was conferred upon the President of the United States, but the King’s prerogative to “declare” or authorise war was vested in Congress. The records of the convention show that the intent was to deny the President any power to use armed forces of the United States in military operations except to repel sudden attacks on American citizens, military, commerce, or territory, unless Congress should authorise him to act.
When George Washington was President, he considered it his duty to issue an executive proclamation of neutrality in conflicts between Britain and France in order to preserve peace, unless and until Congress should declare war. Not only did Washington keep us out of a war which was none of our business, but he was sustained by the Neutrality Act of 1794, which is still on the books today. It prohibits a private citizen from warlike acts against a foreign power with which the United States is at peace. When John Adams served as President, Congress authorised war on a limited basis against the French Republic until peace was restored by treaty. In his first annual message as President, Thomas Jefferson reported that he had ordered our navy to defend our merchant fleet on the Mediterranean Sea against North African pirates, but added that he could not go further until Congress had authorised him to make war. When Jefferson subsequently landed marines “on the shores of Tripoli,” he was authorised to act by a resolution of Congress.
THE GULF OF TONKIN RESOLUTION
These vital constitutional principles were threatened at the time of the Vietnam War. In 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats reportedly attacked our navy in the Gulf on Tonkin, but were repelled, and President Lyndon Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes on the ports from which the enemy craft reportedly launched their attack. Congress reacted by passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which approved the retaliatory attacks after the fact, and warned the North Vietnamese that the United States and our allies were prepared to react further under the SEATO Treaty. But it did not authorise the President to undertake additional military operations. At the time, I was a member of the United States House of Representatives, and the intent of the resolution is vivid in my memory. Before I voted, Gerald Ford, then Republican leader in the House, later President, assured me the resolution did not authorise war.
Johnson nevertheless used this resolution as a false pretext to order a huge build-up of American armed forces and fight a hopeless land war in Vietnam that cost the lives of more than 50,000 American troops. Thousands more suffered permanent disabilities. The economic costs were astronomical.
THE WAR POWERS ACT (1973)
In order to prevent recurrence of any such tragedy and to restore the intended meaning of the Constitution, I joined colleagues in Congress from both parties in framing the War Powers Act of 1973. I was one of those instrumental in securing its passage over the veto of President Richard Nixon.
The Act prohibits warfare by the President abroad without authorisation by Congress, save in very limited circumstances which the framers of the Constitution themselves recognised. If the President engages armed forces of the United States in hostilities abroad, he must report details in writing to leaders in Congress within 48 hours, and then terminate operations within 60 days unless Congress authorises a continuance. It is a necessary and proper law to implement and coordinate the powers of Congress and the President on the always-dangerous business of going to war. Since the War Powers Act of 1973 was passed, compliance has been generally satisfactory. Before our military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq began, President George Bush secured war powers resolutions from Congress, supported by large bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate.
OBAMA’S INTRUSION IN LIBYA
When first campaigning for President, Barack Obama complained that Congress should never have authorised our invasion of Iraq, and on the promise that he would avoid needless military entanglement abroad he won broad support. However, in Benghazi, acting against the advice of his own lawyers in the Justice Department and the Pentagon, Obama ignored the War Powers Act and ordered a military intrusion in Libya without approval of Congress. He ordered bombardment of military facilities of Ghadafi’s government. And after 60 days the President continued his executive war measures, although he had no congressional authority to do so. The House of Representatives then passed a resolution of disapproval, but Obama ignored it. In the wake of this military intrusion, America was confronted with the infamous episode in Benghazi, including the murder of the US ambassador and two of his aides. Questions concerning our involvement linger.
PENDING TROUBLE IN SYRIA
Recent statements by President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Congressman Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, suggest the US government may suddenly become engaged in another unconstitutional and counter-productive war, this time in Syria, a theatre in which, like Libya, America’s national interests are not substantially involved. Moreover, the Syrian scene is so unsettled we might find ourselves supporting an unintended side of the conflict.
In an interview with Charley Rose on public television on April 26, 2013, Rogers stated his strong support for Obama to provide “non-combat” leadership - whatever that is - of insurgency efforts to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Rogers is misguided if he thinks Obama can bring down Assad without deploying thousands of US troops on Syrian territory. Rogers said in his interview that he was alarmed at unconfirmed reports that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons. Obama and Kerry have both said use of these chemicals by Assad’s forces would be a “game-changer.” These statements suggest dangerous and unconstitutional involvement by our government in the Middle East.
Congress must rise to its constitutional duty by promptly passing a resolution opposing war measures in Syria and prohibiting further deployment of drone warplanes.
Paul Findley served as a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives (1961-1983) serving most of that time on the Forign Affairs Committee. He was a principal author of the War Powers Act and is the author of four books on Middle East policy. He served in the US Navy in the Pacific during the World War II and resides in Jacksonville, Illinois.