Even though he is unlikely to succeed in preventing a Congressional grant of blank-check warmaking powers to the Bush administration, Senator Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, has done America the service of clarifying the issue at hand. Thanks to Byrd’s fierce denunciations of an unnecessary resolution to promote an unnecessary war, members of Congress who side with the administration will not be able to plead ignorance to the charge that they abandoned their Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities in order to position themselves for the fall election.
Rarely in the history of the Senate has a member so bluntly identified the hypocrisy of the White House on a question of warmaking. But there was no partisan malice in Byrd’s remarks. In a remarkable speech delivered as the Senate opened its debate on Bush’s request for broad authority to use military force against Iraq, Byrd chastised his fellow Democrats for engaging in equally contemptible acts.
“The newly bellicose mood that permeates this White House is unfortunate, all the moreso because it is clearly motivated by campaign politics. Republicans are already running attack ads against Democrats on Iraq. Democrats favor fast approval of a resolution so they can change the subject to domestic economic problems,” declared the senior Democratic senator. “Before risking the lives of American troops, all members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — must overcome the siren song of political polls and focus strictly on the merits, not the politics, of this most serious issue.”
With fury entirely appropriate to the moment, Byrd roared: “We are rushing into war without fully discussing why, without thoroughly considering the consequences, or without making any attempt to explore what steps we might take to avert conflict. The resolution before us today is not only a product of haste; it is also a product of presidential hubris. This resolution is breathtaking in its scope. It redefines the nature of defense, and reinterprets the Constitution to suit the will of the Executive Branch. It would give the President blanket authority to launch a unilateral preemptive attack on a sovereign nation that is perceived to be a threat to the United States. This is an unprecedented and unfounded interpretation of the President’s authority under the Constitution, not to mention the fact that it stands the charter of the United Nations on its head.”
Typically, Byrd was strongest when he asked today’s politicians to square their actions against the historical imperatives and insights that he, above all other members of Congress, recognizes and understands. In a speech that began with reference to the Roman historian Titus Livius and closed with a detailed recreation of the Senate debate that preceded the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Byrd summoned the words of an Illinois congressman who in the 1840s chastised a proponent of expanded presidential warmaking powers:
“Representative Abraham Lincoln, in a letter to William H. Herndon, stated: ‘Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose – – and you allow him to make war at pleasure… The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.'”
The West Virginian asked the Senate: “If he could speak to us today, what would Lincoln say of the Bush doctrine concerning preemptive strikes?” No doubt, Lincoln would join millions of Americans in telling senators to listen to the wisdom of Robert Byrd.