Given the immensity and enormous power of the U.S. military with its advanced weaponry systems, the greatest threat to global security since the end of World War Two has not been nuclear weapons but the misuse and abuse of presidential military power. It was therefore a stunning surprise for civic constitutionalists when President Barack Obama announced he would seek Congress’s approval before using military force against Syria. While opponents dismissed his reversal as indecisiveness, a lame duck presidency, even cowardice-“red lines” to a “yellow streak,” did he just challenge a pathological disease in which presidents have unwisely and immorally used military power?
The U.S. Constitution states that Congress has the sole power to declare war and to raise and support armies. Yet presidents have used the armed forces in more than 250 instances outside of the U.S.(1), the vast majority of them having occurred in the last one-hundred years and without legislative approval. This prerogative is a pathological addiction in which the uses of military power has become totally attached to, and embedded within, presidents. The mishandling of presidential war-making powers has also been connected to exponential increases in destructive and lethal weapons and their institutions. These abusive and dictatorial powers have endangered both domestic and global freedoms.
“The President shall be Commander in Chief” clause, however, was never meant for the president to use military force if he believed an attack was imminent. Nor did it provide using the military and weaponry to initiate a preemptive conflict without a declaration of war. And since the Commander in Chief’s duty was to only defend the borders of the U.S., using coercive military force for the purpose of gaining foreign territories and resources, intervening on behalf of businesses and corporations, enforcing market economies, establishing blockades and no-fly zones, restoring order in other nations, toppling foreign regimes, even striking at terrorists, were never intended.
A gradual militant, pathological sickness, or the inability to control and wisely use an ever spreading and cancerous-like militarism that was initially created for the purpose of defending against external threats, has usurped constitutional checks and balances. Since the military-industrial-academic complex has been allowed to have an unreasonably large role in deciding important matters for the U.S. (including political, economical, social, medical, cultural, educational, scientific and foreign policies), civilian control over both the presidency and military has been eliminated. Reason, dissent and theological resistance has been purged, and purity of language and ideas have become militarized.
Up until now, more recent presidents have succumbed to, and then internalized, this pathological disease known as total military power. Without congressional approval, they have preemptively sent armies and military forces around the world to fight short- and long-term conflicts, even major wars costing millions of lives and tens of billions of dollars. They have used their prerogative military powers to intimidate political opponents, Congress and the United Nations. To maintain their popularity, presidents have used misinformation and fear, imaginary threats and intelligence estimates, and authorized military operations that involved overwhelming force against weak opponents.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution, though, never intended presidents to have privileged military powers. Having only experienced an agricultural-based society consisting of independent freeholders, they believed farmers’ interests in retaining their title to land would make them unlikely to support fiscally or militarily unsustainable initiatives.(2) They never envisioned an industrial- and manufacturing- and service- and information-based society dependent on a highly trained and consumptive military, naval and air force. Forces that would someday not only threaten the sovereignty and environments of numerous nations, but the very basic freedoms and survival of the U.S.
Initially, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry threatened to militarily attacking the Syrian government for allegedly using chemical weapons against the Syrian people. Then they suggested a possible missile attack that would either punish the Syrian regime or destroy several of its military installations. Now, and on the heels of Britain’s historic “no” vote in the parliament to not support another mishandling and misuse of military power, President Obama has declared that such an attack or strike against another nation should be debated in Congress and then legislated. He finally recognized that Americans were “weary” of war and the importance of congressional authorization.
Another debate that should occur is an updated amendment detailing articles of impeachment against presidents that abuse their Commander in Chief prerogatives. Is not unrestrained presidential military power, where thousands of citizens are sent to be killed in needless conflicts, treason, or a type of levying war against one’s own people? Congress and the courts are also to blame, since they have abdicated their responsibility to preserve the constitutional role of Congress in war making. As for the citizenry (who also share in this pathology of power), new alternatives will have to be imagined while also critically engaging and dismantling the military-industrial-academic complex.
In announcing that the “country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be more effective…if we have this debate,” did President Obama just check his temperature and start to challenge the pathology of military power?
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