The media is in a frenzy after an exchange in the Senate Armed Forces Committee between Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. As is the usual in many of these committee meetings, Sen. Session and Sec. Panetta seemed to confuse one another with semantics. At hand was the issue of initiating a no-fly zone above Syria. Panetta suggested that the US military would need to seek approval from NATO and perhaps the UN Security Council in order to form a legal basis for an international coalition. Sessions, though, thought Panetta was saying that they would not need approval from Congress in order to launch the US military against Syria.
This goes to the heart of one of the issues that has been plaguing America’s foreign policy ever sicne World War II. Here we have a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the US Secretary of Defense in disagreement and confusion over a fairly simple issue that has dire repercussions: how does our nation go to war?
While Senator Sessions seems confused about Panetta first seeking approval from the international community before coming to Congress to ask for approval, I would refer him to our most recent military engagement in Libya. Just last year, military action in Libya was first authorized by the UN so that an international coalition could be formed. Only then was funding for military action approved by the Congress. I think this is basically the same course of action Sec. Panetta was advocating in this meeting.
But, I am in complete agreement with Sen. Sessions when he asks Panetta, “Wouldn’t you agree that would be pretty breathtaking to the average American?” As an average American, yes, I would agree. Just one look at the wikipedia page on the subject of Declarations of War by the United States is enough to set my head spinning. So… there are some wars that Congress declares… there are some wars that Congress authorizes… and there are other wars that Congress funds? And there are even more wars that the President can just start without even askign the Congress?
We’re lucky enough to have a document that pretty clearly states how and when the United States may deploy it’s military (aka “go to war”). Article one, Section eight of the US Constitution enumerates that “The Congress shall have power… to declare war.” That’s it. Plain and simple. The last 60 years, our government has been pussyfooting around how we declare war. Some say because the nature of the enemy has changed, how we wage war against them must change, as well. I say, “Hogwash!” It’s pretty cut and dry here: the Syrian government has repressed it’s citizens, it has murdered it’s citizens, it has thrown the rule of law to the wayside. If America has a problem with that and would like to use it’s military to stem the violence in Syria, our Congress should declare war against Syria. As we should have explicitly done in Libya. And in Iraq. And in Afghanistan. And in Bosnia. And Lebanon, and Vietnam, and Korea.
By formally declaring war against another nation, Congress acknowledges the cost of that war, both in financial terms and human terms. As crude as the saying is, Congress needs to sack up. We could simplify our standards and save ourselves from a whole lot of bureaucratic baloney if we decided to only go to war when Congress declares it. Once war is declared, then we can go ahead and form official international coalitions and worry about forming a legal basis for other nations to join us in our war. But first we need to acknowledge our own legal basis for war.
And notice I got through the whole post without mentioning Ron Paul even once. Oh… wait.