Posted on February 12, 2015
Congress used to declare war.
Now it authorizes the use of military force.
We used to go to war against countries. Now, we use military force against imaginary caliphates.
In my first year as a staff member to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and President Bush asked Congress for permission to oust him.
The House was closely divided on the question. The Republicans, of course, supported their President, but Congressional Democrats weren’t so sure. Speaker Tom Foley and Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt were opposed to the President’s request. The hard left was dead-seat opposed, but hawkish Democrats, especially those with close ties to Israel, were supportive.
The resolution to give the President the authority to intervene wasn’t a formal declaration of war (we don’t do those anymore in America) but it gave the White House all it needed to launch the invasion.
Of course, we easily defeated Hussein, although Bush decided to leave the dictator in power.
Right after my new boss, Denny Hastert became Speaker, President Clinton asked for Congress’s approval to intervene in Kosovo. The Senate passed such a resolution, but the House couldn’t make up its mind, and it failed on tie-vote. Since it was a non-binding vote, it didn’t matter, and the President continued his bombing campaign.
In 2001, three days after the 9/11 attacks, Congress authorized the use of force to go after the guys who organized and funded the operation. That resolution is still in force, to a large extent, since it has been pretty hard to find and kill them all. If memory serves, only Barbara Lee voted against the resolution.
A year later, Congress voted on another war resolution, this one aimed once again at Hussein. He was accused of being a party to the 9/11 attacks (which turned out to be, well, wrong), and was accused of hiding materials that would help him to build a nuclear device (which also turned out to be, well, wrong). Only 39% of the House Democrats voted for this resolution, with a handful of Republicans voting no. Passage in the Senate was more bipartisan, as only 22 Democrats (and 1 Republican) voted no.
Politics and philosophy always play a role in these fights to authorize military force. Some folks just simply don’t want to go to war, while others try to either support their President or position themselves to be President.
The vote to go to war (or to authorize military force) should be taken very seriously by every Member of Congress. After all, you are basically giving the government the power to kill people.
To vote to go to war, you have to have trust in your President. You have to have faith that the plan the President is outlining is going to work. You have to be able to look beyond the politics and see that the investment in blood and treasure is worth the sacrifice. And you have to have the feeling that the American people are with you.
In 1991, most Americans didn’t give a hoot about Saddam Hussein or Kuwait. The hangover from the Viet Nam conflict was still a real thing, especially among Democrats, and while George H.W. Bush was seen as a competent leader, the vote to go to war wasn’t a sure thing.
In hindsight, a bunch of Democrats wished they voted for a war that turned out to be exceedingly popular (it’s fun to win, with few casualties), and several of them dropped out of the subsequent Presidential race, clearing the path for Bill Clinton’s surprising ascendancy.
Republicans deeply distrusted Clinton’s bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia, mostly because they thought he was trying to change subject from his impeachment. The movie “Wag the Dog”, sprung from this cynicism. That’s why House Republicans tied on the question, with Speaker Hastert silently supporting the President, and Whip Tom DeLay doing his best to kill it.
Big attacks on our soil tend to stir rage in the souls of the American people, and it became clear that President Bush could invade almost anybody he wanted to invade in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy.
Iraq was conflated in the mind of the voters because the Bush Administration wanted to conflate them. Taken in isolation, nobody in their right mind would have given the President the benefit of the doubt. But amid the war fever that hit America, it’s not that surprising that he got the go-ahead to depose Saddam Hussein once and for all.
President Obama is not widely trusted by either Republicans or Democrats. His AUMF is seen as too much by the left and not enough by the right. Most voters are war weary, although there is a palpable fear of ISIS among those same voters, thanks to its aggressive media campaign showing off how completely depraved they are.
Congress most likely would like to focus on other things, although if it can come together on this one resolution, it would do a world of good for our political class.
The first rule of politics is to define the enemy. And if Obama and the Congress can define ISIS as an existential threat that must be deal with, it will have a chance to get something passed.
This President, though, is seen by our allies and by most members of the House and Senate (on both sides, I might add) as inexperienced and feckless, a leader who doesn’t really have the stomach for the fight.
It seems odd that given all of the stuff that Congress has to do, including a budget and a resolution to the Homeland Security bill, that the President would inject an ask for military force, which he has been using his current authority without giving it a second thought.
I doubt that Congress will be able to produce anything that will mean anything. A meeting of the minds seems like a long-shot at best.