Declaration of War

DECLARATION OF WAR….On Friday, George Bush said that, based on the intelligence known at the time, “more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate…voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power.” In tomorrow’s Washington Post, one of those Democrats, John Edwards, says this:

It was a mistake to vote for this war in 2002….The information the American people were hearing from the president ? and that I was being given by our intelligence community ? wasn’t the whole story. Had I known this at the time, I never would have voted for this war.

The question of whether intelligence was manipulated is important, but I think the fact that we’re arguing about it exposes an even more fundamental issue: did Edwards really vote for the war in the first place?

Article I, Section 8 of the constitution says flatly that “The Congress shall have Power…To declare War,” but no Congress has declared war for the past 60 years. They’ve passed resolutions, they’ve passed authorizations, and they’ve passed budget authorities, but they haven’t declared war. The 108th Congress certainly never declared war on Iraq.

There are several problems with this. For starters, it makes a mockery of the constitution. It’s legitimate to draw a line beneath which the president can commit troops on his own authority, but there’s little question that we’ve gone well over that line repeatedly in the past decade and a half. By anybody’s definition, Gulf I was a war, Kosovo was a war, Afghanistan was a war, and Gulf II was a war. None of them required either secrecy or an instant response that couldn’t wait on Congress. In other words, if a declaration of war wasn’t required for these conflicts, then Congress’s constitutional authority is meaningless. That clause of the constitution might as well not exist.

Second, it gives the president a blank check. Once troops are in the field, no Congress can afford to withhold its support. The reality is that if presidents are allowed to commit large numbers of troops on their own authority, there are essentially no limits to what they can do.

Third, and worst, it allows Congress to evade its own responsibility for war. Did John Edwards really vote for war? Or did he merely vote to authorize coercive inspections? Would he still have voted for the war on March 20 based on what he knew then? Or would the lack of WMD and failed diplomacy have changed his mind?

There’s no reason we should have to guess about this. If the president wants to go to war, he should get a declaration of war. Not an “authorization of force” six months before the fact, but a declaration of war a few days before the invasion. Not only is that what the constitution requires, but it also means that members of Congress can no longer play games about what their vote really meant. After all, a declaration of war can hardly be misinterpreted.