No American president, from Nixon to Obama, has accepted the legal legitimacy of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, one of the major achievements of the movement against the Indochina War. The core claim of the White House has been that executive war-making power cannot be abridged, even though the US Constitution seems to expressly grant the Congress a power-sharing role.
Congress faces a fateful choice to either cede its war-approval powers to the White House or take an authorizing vote on Iraq and Syria after this November's election. Peace activists have a choice as well, whether or not to push for a Congressional authorization knowing it likely will be favorable.
Achieving consensus around hard choices is not always a strength of the peace movement. Is the principle of defending the constitutional role of Congress against the executive branch more important than the outcome of a vote if it ratifies war? There are three possibilities:
First, Congress surrenders its constitutional role, leaving the White House, Pentagon and CIA in charge of carrying out military policies of their choice. The President says the current phase of the Long War will last at least three years.
Second, Congress authorizes bombing and covert operations in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, and perhaps ground troops, without conditions. An open-ended authorization is being proposed by hawks like Representative Frank Wolf (VA-10), Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) and Representative Darrell Issa (R –CA 49). The Issa bill would terminate in 120 days or require another renewal.
Third, Congress authorizes an air war with substantive conditions. The foremost proponent of asserting Congressional authority, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, would authorize the US bombing strikes for one year and while denying the significant use of American ground troops in combat roles. Variations on this approach have been introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who wants three years, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA 28) who wants 18 months. None of the bills so far include repeal of the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Force (AUMF) against Al Qaeda and "associated" groups, which the Obama administration employs to justify its bombing campaign against ISIS, although the Schiff bill does include a sunset provision.
For the peace movement this appears to be a classic lesser-evil choice. But that reaction ignores two basic achievements contained in the Kaine legislation: first, preserving the principle of Congressional authority and, second, placing real limits on the Obama administration's ability to escalate with American ground troops. And not challenging the Obama administration, in the opinion of many, will provide a "silent consent" to the executive branch for future wars. Most importantly, Congressional district offices are the best centers of access where local peace coalitions can affect their representatives. Emails or protests aimed at Washington are useful but serious stirrings in a Congressional district can have greater impact.
Members of Congress will be looking closely at their constituents' attitudes during the current Congressional break. If the activists in their districts or states are calling either for a "no" vote or for precise conditions on a "yes" vote (one year deadline, no ground troops, etc.) they will have some influence, if not today then certainly in 2015 and 2016 when the war will be continuing.
Assuming that any war(s) which go on for three years will lead into costly quagmire, the debates on deadlines, deployment of US ground troops, and funding will grow in significance.
Kaine is not only from the political battleground state of Virginia; he is a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, an ally of Obama, and a possible presidential candidate.
Originally published: October 6, 2014
Updated: October 29, 2014