Just a little over a year ago during his speech at the National Defense University here in Washington, DC, President Obama talked about winding down Bush’s war on terror.
But as US bombers continue to strike against ISIS in Iraq and now Syria, it now looks like the war on terror will be with us for years to come.
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And that’s a really dangerous thing for our democracy.
You see, aside from the return of the British Empire, there was nothing that scared our founding fathers more than multigenerational war – essentially, war without end.
The founders were scholars of classical history, and they knew that when given too much power, armies, like the armies ancient Rome, would push for more and more war, regardless of whether or not it was actually necessary for the safety of the people.
This threatened the very core of our system of government. As James Madison told the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787:
“A standing military force … will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”
This idea that a standing army made powerful by war would one day “enslave” the people through perpetual war scared revolutionaries like Madison so much that they devoted a whole section of the Constitution towards preventing it from ever happening.
In Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, they gave Congress – the elected representatives of “we the people” – the sole power to raise and support armies, but – unlike any other appropriations – they limited the amount of time Congress could finance the army to a maximum of two years.
And with the Second Amendment, the Founders tried to create a militia system that could make a standing army during peacetime unnecessary.
Obviously, today the military-industrial complex has found ways to work around the founders’ checks and balances to create a standing army that is the most powerful in the world.
But still, with President Obama’s decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and Syria, now is a vital time to listen to the founders’ warnings about war without end, and the dangers it poses to our democracy.
That’s because whatever you think about the threat we face from groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, there is no debate about the fact that the past 13 years of “forever war” have turned our country into something that would absolutely terrify our founders.
We now have a surveillance state to rival anything created by the East Germans during the Cold War, and our Justice Department regularly talks about how the government has the authority to execute US citizens without trial both here in the United States and anywhere in the world.
If that doesn’t prove Madison’s quote about how “No nation [can] preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,” nothing does.
Given what’s happened over the past decade, it’s easy to be cynical about whether or not “we the people” can stand up for what the founders believed in and stop “continual warfare” before it’s too late.
But there is a solution to stop this insanity: all it takes is an act of Congress.
According to the White House, President Obama has the authority to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria because Congress gave him that authority when it passed an authorization to use military force (AUMF) against Al-Qaeda in 2001 and when it passed an authorization to use force against Iraq in 2002.
And because President Obama says his authority to wage war without end comes from two acts of Congress, Congress has the power to repeal both of those acts and pass a new authorization for use of force, one that could limit – both in time and scope – the president from fighting ISIS forever.
Our elected representatives simply need to listen to our nation’s founders and put real checks on the ability of the president and the military.
War without end poses a very real threat to our democracy. And if Congress is serious about protecting our way of life, they’ll pass a new, limited AUMF before we go the way of ancient Rome.
After all, it’s what the founders would have done.