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Politics in Wonderland
By Ira Glasser
With an invasion of Haiti growing more imminent each day, we
are witnessing what has become a pre-engagement ritual: the
bipartisan refusal by all three branches of government to comply
with the Constitition.
Without exception, every President in recent memory has
argued that as Commander-in-Chief, the President has the
constitutional authority to initiate war without the prior
approval of Congress. The President and other executive branch
officials do this by explaining away the relevant provision of
the Constitution. Article I, Section 8 says: "The Congress
shall have the power...to declare war."
To the average citizen whose sons and daughters might be
killed or maimed in war, and whose other interests might also be
gravely affected, the meaning of that provision might appear
clear. But to the President and his executive branch appointees
who do not wish to have their decisions subjected to the
democratic consent of those most deeply affected by them, the
Constitution's command is much more ambiguous.
Thus, when we committed troops to Somalia, we were told that
we weren't committing them to battle, but only to "humanitarian
aid." When we committed troops to Panama and Grenada, we were
told it was to respond to an "emergency." Even when we invaded
Iraq, which was authorized by Congress prior to the invasion,
President Bush claimed he was submitting the question to Congress
only as a courtesy, not because the Constitution required it.
And now President Clinton seeks to escape the Constitution's
requirement by claiming that his impending invasion of Haiti is
not a war at all, but a "police action." The Korean War, also
initiated without the prior approval of Congress, was similarly
called a "police action," but those Americans who lost life or
limb there would not likely have appreciated the distinction.
While each president's claim of authority to initiate war
remains consistent, regardless of party, the congressional view
is curiously variable. "The President has no authority, acting
alone, to commit the United States to war", said Sen. George
Mitchell, the Democratic Senate leader, when President Bush
wanted to invade Iraq in 1990. But in 1994, with a Democratic
president at the helm, Sen. Mitchell's view of the Constitution
has changed: while the President should seek congressional
approval, according to Mitchell, "it's not legal or necessary."
The reverse metamorphosis is reflected in statements by Sen.
Robert Dole, the Republican leader, now and then. Citizens will
be excused for concluding that partisan loyalty rather than
fidelity to the Constitution was decisive in their respective
Thus if it is true, as some say, that the President has
illegitimately grabbed constitutional powers reserved exclusively
to Congress, Congress itself, as a whole, has been a willing
accomplice, and has consistently abdicated its constitutional
responsibility to make the decision whether to go to war.
And what about the judicial branch, designed to protect our
constitutional rights against the other two branches of
government? By and large, the courts have stood aside, either by
finding various doctrinal reasons to avoid deciding the issue, or
in some cases by ruling that the war powers clause of the
Constitution does not mean what it says.
Thus, in the matter of how exactly a democratic society
should decide in any given instance whether to use military force
as an instrument of foreign policy, what we have is the
deliberate bipartisan refusal by all three branches of government
to obey the Constitution. The result is that democracy itself is
short-circuited, and the consent of the governed ignored.
Is this too strong a statement? I do not think so.
Obviously, no constitutional provision is so clear and embracing
that its meaning in a given situation is not open to argument or
interpretation. The founders of this country meant to establish
general principles when they wrote the Constitution; they did not
mean to anticipate every circumstance or construct a detailed set
of regulations that would decide every question in advance. But
whatever the war powers clause may mean in any particular
circumstance, its basic principle is clear: this nation should
not commit the blood of its young and the treasure of its
citizens merely upon the say-so of any one person, including the
President. To the contrary, so grave a decision must not be
taken except with the consent of the governed, and in a
representative democracy, the instrument of that consent is
Calling war a "police action" doesn't change that. Calling
something "an emergency" that has in fact been planned, publicly
discussed and openly threatened for months doesn't change that.
And pretending that our war is a war initiated by the United
Nations doesn't change that either. Let's face it: it's
Politics in Wonderland. As Humpty Dumpty told a bewildered
"When I use a word it means just what I
choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make
words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be
master -- that's all."
Exactly. Has Humpty Dumpty taken over all three branches of
Ira Glasser is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties
[September 15, 1994]
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