The British Parliament’s rejection of an attack on Syria is a direct contrast — and implicit challenge — to the political war system of the United States.
“It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the government will act accordingly,” Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday night. At least for now, Uncle Sam’s poodle is off the leash.
Now all eyes turn to Congress, where the bar has suddenly been raised. Can the House of Representatives measure up to the House of Commons?
It’s a crucial question — but President Obama intends to render it moot with unwavering contempt for the war authority of Congress. Like his predecessors.
Even with war votes on Capitol Hill, the charade quotient has been high. The Gulf War began in early 1991 after the Senate vote for war was close: 52 to 47. But, as the PBS “Frontline” program reported years later, President George H.W. Bush had a plan in place: if Congress voted against going to war, he’d ignore Congress.
“The president privately, with the most inner circle, made absolutely clear he was going to go forward with this action even if he were impeached,” said Robert Gates, who was deputy national security advisor. “The truth of the matter is that while public opinion and the voice of Congress was important to Bush, I believe it had no impact on his decision about what he would do. He was going to throw that son of a bitch [Saddam Hussein] out of Kuwait, regardless of whether the Congress or the public supported him.”
By the Pentagon’s estimate, the six weeks of the Gulf War took the lives of 100,000 Iraqi people. “It’s really not a number I’m terribly interested in,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Colin Powell, said at the time.
Eight years later, the War Powers Act’s 60-day deadline for congressional approval of U.S. warfare expired on May 25, 1999 — but large-scale U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia continued. Bill Clinton was unable to get authorization from Congress but, like other wartime presidents before and since, he ignored the law that was passed in 1973 to constrain autocratic war-making. Republican Rep. Tom Campbell said: “The president is in violation of the law. That is clear.” Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich said: “The war continues unauthorized, without the consent of the governed.” And President Clinton said, in effect, I don’t care.
In October 2002, President George W. Bush won congressional approval for an invasion of Iraq, waving the fig leaf that passage would strengthen his hand at the bargaining table. Of course Bush got what he wanted — a full-scale war on Iraq.
“The president’s ability to decide when and where to use America’s military power is now absolute,” pundit Michael Kinsley observed, writing in Time magazine in mid-April 2003, just after the U.S. occupation of Iraq began. “Congress cannot stop him. That’s not what the Constitution says, and it’s not what the War Powers Act says, but that’s how it works in practice.”
That’s how it works in practice.
We’ve got to change how it works in practice.