Vanderbilt University professor Dana Nelson wrote an important book some years ago: Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People. In it, she warned about a process of constitutional unbalancing that has steered the United States toward “presidentialism,” whereby the unitary executive becomes ever more powerful and ever more definitive when it comes to decision-making about fundamental issues. Nowhere is presidentialism more troubling than in the exercise of war powers. The role of Congress has been severely diminished as successive presidents have claimed ever-greater authority to order bombing raids and drone strikes, dispatch ground troops to distant lands, and spend billions of dollars without clear declarations of war or meaningful oversight.
There are many possible and necessary correctives for presidentialism when it comes to war powers. Congress needs to check and balance presidents regardless of their party. The people need to be brought back into discussions about interventions abroad and the many costs and dangers of the military-industrial complex, which President Dwight Eisenhower warned about six decades ago. These issues should be front and center in all our debates, but especially in our consideration of who should occupy the Oval Office. We need to hear from presidential candidates on issues of war and peace. We need some sense of whether the many Democrats and perhaps several Republicans who will bid for their party’s nomination in 2020 will be prepared to join in a process of dialing back the excesses of the imperial presidency when it comes to the exercise of war powers.
Unfortunately, presidential debates and forums tend to focus on domestic issues or the flash-point international concern of the moment. So I have begun to ask the current roster of declared presidential candidates, during the course of broader interviews, to ruminate on some basic questions about the exercise of war powers. Before the 2020 race is finished, I hope to get all of the major contenders on the record, and to come back to the front-runners as the race evolves. The point here is not to download talking points, but rather to begin conversations that explore the extent to which candidates have thought about untangling the United States from what Congresswoman Barbara Lee refers to as “our forever wars.” And about whether they recognize the dangers that extend from presidential presumptions regarding what Lee describes as a “blank check for war.”
I started with Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from Texas, who spoke in some detail about militarism during his 2018 Senate race against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. During his six years in the House, O’Rourke voted with the anti-war group Peace Action 85 percent of the time. That’s better than the lifetime ratings for top-ranking Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and majority leader Steny Hoyer, but not quite as good as the records maintained by Lee and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan.
On a Sunday morning in mid-March, as part of an extended interview, I asked O’Rourke for his thoughts. Here’s how he responded.
On where he begins when considering issues of war and peace: I’ll try to relate it to something I was just asked yesterday in Independence, Iowa. A gentleman stood up and said, “I’m really anxious that we’re going to use military force in Venezuela. What do you think about that?” I said, “Well, first of all, I would oppose, and as president of the United States would not lead, forces in Venezuela.” But if you look at our involvement in the Western Hemisphere, if you go back to Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in the 1950s, we, through the CIA, literally overthrew a democratically elected government. Those refugees and asylum seekers coming from Guatemala today, you can trace some of that back to our actions in the 1950s. Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s, the way in which we used Honduras to pursue a military-first foreign policy in the region—the consequences of those actions are being felt and will be felt going forward.
Look at [the 1953 CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Mohammad] Mosaddegh in Iran. Coming on 19 years in Afghanistan. Twenty-seven years in Iraq, [five] successive presidential administrations. Tell me that any of those wars or covert actions or interventions have made those countries, the world, or our foreign-policy prospects any better. They haven’t.
On alternatives to military action: I think the much tougher but far more important work to do is to lead with diplomacy, holding the card of military involvement as the last resort. Unfortunately, for far too long, we’ve led militarily and then tried belatedly to follow that up with diplomacy. When you look at the $22 trillion of debt that we have right now, so much of that [extends from] these wars that we’ve sustained, these countries that we’ve rebuilt after we’ve invaded them. And, at the same time, we fail to pay the full cost for those women and men who served in those wars. We’re losing 20 veterans a day by their own hand in this country; [most] of those 20 have been unable or, for whatever reason, unwilling to go into a VA [Veterans Affairs facility] and get the care that might have saved their lives.
We need to bring these wars to a close. We need to follow the lead of [Representatives] Mark Pocan and Ro Khanna, who are trying to prevent us from going into new wars or continuing the wars that we are effectively in, in places like Yemen.
On blank checks for war: This country has completely forgotten its constitutional responsibility to lawfully declare and end these wars, as prescribed in the first article of the US Constitution. I don’t think there’s been a meaningful vote on the wars since 9/11, since the ones we had in 2001 and 2002, and I think that’s desperately needed right now. If we want to have the backs of our service members, there’s no better way to do it than to define victory in the wars that we wage, describe the strategy to achieve that, and have an open-eyed understanding of what the cost is that we will bear to achieve that. If we are unwilling to do that, then we have no business being there, sacrificing American lives and taking the lives of others in this country’s name.