Abraham Lincoln got it right when he said, as a young congressman, he warned against the penchant of presidents to abuse any war powers afforded them:
“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. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose. If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, ‘I see no probability of the British invading us’ but he will say to you ‘be silent; I see it, if you don’t.’ 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.”
Unfortunately, too many members of the current US House have forgotten their predecessor’s wise counsel.
When the House approved the current “National Defense Authorization Act,” it included a section (1034) that read:
Congress affirms that—
(1) the United States is engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces and that those entities continue to pose a threat to the United States and its citizens, both domestically and abroad;
(2) the President has the authority to use all necessary and appropriate force during the current armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note);
(3) the current armed conflict includes nations, organization, and persons who—
(A) are part of, or are substantially supporting, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners; or
(B) have engaged in hostilities or have directly supported hostilities in aid of a nation, organization, or person described in subparagraph (A); and
(4) the President’s authority pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note) includes the authority to detain belligerents, including persons described in paragraph (3), until the termination of hostilities.
The group Roots Action described that language as “perhaps the most fundamental change to the structure of our federal government that has ever appeared likely to pass through Congress, as it would effectively give the power to make war to all future presidents. “
Roots Action and other groups campaigned to get the Senate to drop the language and they appear to have had significant success with their demand that the Senate remove Section 1034 from the act.
Credit is due the activists who raised this critical issue.
And credit is due the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (including chair Carl Levin, D-Michigan) who apparently heard the call for a reworking of the spending bill—even if that reworking failed to adequately reign in the excesses of the Pentagon.
David Swanson, the author of groundbreaking books War Is A Lie and Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union, who has played a critical role in publicizing the threat posed by the extension of presidential war powers outlined in the House version of the “National Defense Authorization Act,” highlighted the significance of the Senate’s removal of the Section 1034 language.
And he noted the irony that the prime backers of the language have been a pair of Republicans, House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon and Arizona Senator John McCain, whose determined prowar stance would have made Democrat Barack Obama the most powerful president in history.
“The Senate is now proposing a bill that does not include that section,” Swanson declared Wednesday. “Remain ever vigilant, but if you can use a pat on the back then give yourself one now. You just helped stop the most dangerous piece of legislation we’ve seen in Congress, at least in a very long time. In what will come as a shock to the Tea Party, but McKeon, of California, and McCain planned to crown President Barack Obama King of America.”
Swanson is right about that. He is right, as well, to warn about the need to remain ever vigilant. But he is most right about the fact that this is a win for the rule of law—and for applying that rule, even to presidents.
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John Nichols, the author of The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders Cure for Royalism (The New Press), wrote the introduction for David Swanson’s Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union. To read more on presidential accountability issues, especially in wartime, visit Swanson’s website: Let’s Try Democracy.