The Constitution of the United States is a brilliant contraption, but the duel under way between Congress and the President over the war in Iraq has put some of its limitations on display. The document specifies that “Congress shall… declare War” (a provision that Congress seems to have forgotten) while assigning the President, as Commander in Chief, the power to wage the war thus declared (this provision is well remembered!). But the document offers no provision for cases in which the two branches disagree on the waging of a war already begun. No constitutional provision specifically assigns any branch of government the power to “undeclare” a war. Only Congress’s power of the purse–that blunt instrument–seems up to the job. What if, for example, a President were to oppose a war that Congress ordered him to fight? Could the Commander in Chief successfully fight a war he did not believe in? That problem has never arisen, but now the opposite situation has developed, as it did once before, during the Vietnam War: Congress has turned against a war it once authorized, while the executive continues to insist on waging it.
Now in Democratic hands, Congress seeks to find a way to make its will felt in the face of George W. Bush’s seemingly implacable resolve to “stay the course” in Iraq. One serious problem is that if, fearful of demanding a true end to the war, Congress merely tries to influence the war’s conduct by issuing guidelines, passing resolutions, demanding certain changes in the military mission and such, then it creates two “deciders” regarding the conduct of the war–a situation that even the warmest advocate of separation of powers will find dubious. Republicans may have a point when they say Congress should not merely interfere in the decisions of the Commander in Chief but should either defund the war altogether or stay out of it.
And yet if, to create unity, the Democrats in Congress join with moderate Republicans around a cosmetic compromise–as many seem tempted to do–they will have embraced the worst of all possible worlds. For example, Senator Jack Reed announced in his response to Bush’s September address to the nation on the war that a Democratic plan would focus “on counterterrorism and training the Iraqi army.” Such a proposal–easily interpreted by the Administration to justify everything it is doing–would be a de facto acquiescence to the Bush policy. It could create a policy quagmire to match the quagmire on the ground in Iraq. For example, if the military launched operations supposedly to counter terror but actually to quell civil war, would Congress demand their cessation? Could it? By what means? Moreover, the unity such a policy would produce would be strictly a Congressional affair. It would nullify the public’s will, clearly expressed in the 2006 elections as well as subsequent opinion polls, to end the war. We are often warned not to “politicize” the war. If that means politicians should not use the war for partisan advantage, the advice is sound. Yet in a deeper sense, politics is the way a democracy conducts its business. It is the means the public is given for making basic decisions facing the nation. If the Democrats close ranks with the Bush Administration around a policy that continues the war, the fundamental purpose of the Constitution–to provide a mechanism for government by the people–will have been thwarted. Without politics, there is no democracy.
Some Democrats point out, quite correctly, that the 2006 election has not given them the votes to prevail with a war-ending policy. As everyone knows, a majority vote in the Senate will not suffice; sixty votes are required to cut off a Republican filibuster, and sixty-seven to overcome a presidential veto. It is true that a cutoff of funds requires only fifty-one votes, but this decisive measure is also likely to lose support among middle-of-the road Democrats, and thus, for the time being, fail. (They are mortally afraid that a cutoff in funds would leave them open to the charge, baseless as it is, that they are refusing to “support the troops,” as if a fund cutoff were a proposal not to bring the troops home safe and sound but a formula to leave them in the field while depriving them of food, ammunition and armor.) Even so, it would be far better for the Democrats as a party to stand fast for the complete withdrawal of American troops. They would then try to win over wavering Republicans (as well as fellow Democrats) in Congress. In the background would be the people’s will–the threat of electoral defeat of the Republicans, both for the executive and legislative offices, in 2008. In short, the Democrats should “politicize” the war in the best sense of that word. It probably will not end while Bush is in office (unless Republican support for it in Congress erodes under pressure of public opinion), but the foundation would be laid for a grand decision by the people in the 2008 election.