When a group of people have been struggling for a long time to do something very hard, and they finally win a significant victory, it’s good to take some time to reflect. It’s good to take time to reflect because it’s always good to celebrate victories, and the more rare they are, the more important it is to celebrate them. But it’s also good to take time to reflect because we might learn something that will help us win more victories in the future. It’s also good to try to fix the memory of the moment of victory, because a key way that people are kept down is drumming into their heads the belief that they can never win.
We haven’t completely stopped the US from bombing Syria for all time. I judge that current reports from DC and the diplomatic front look reassuring, in the sense that I do not believe that the Administration will bomb Syria without Congressional consent, and I do not believe that the Administration will get Congressional consent in anything like the current situation. The situation could change, and if it changes significantly for the worse, in the sense that the possibility that Congress will approve bombing significantly increases, I am sure that there will be a robust pushback by US public opinion. But I’m confident that we have at least enough space to spend a little time reflecting while everyone’s memory of the last few weeks is still fresh.
In this short piece, I don’t claim to be exhaustive. I’m going to focus on three things I want more people in the U.S. to be aware of. Others will write other accounts.
I’m trying to imagine someone in Britain writing in such a piece, “Parliament Matters.”
But in the United States, we don’t have as robust a culture of political engagement as they do in Britain.
When President Obama postponed indefinitely his push for Congressional authorization of a military strike in favor of diplomacy, the New York Times described the situation thus: the Administration faced “implacable opposition to a strike in Syria in Congress and throughout the country”; a vote authorizing military action “was almost certain to lose” as “opposition to a strike was hardening” on Capitol Hill.
In the set of people in the United States – particularly on the “left” – who say they care about stopping wars, too much political space has been occupied by people who run down engagement with Congress. That’s a key reason that this moment should be fixed in public memory. More than anything else, engagement with Congress stopped the bombing. So, the next time someone asks you to engage Congress against war, and some anti-political engagement loudmouth runs that down, remember this moment. It wasn’t anti-political engagement loudmouths who stopped the war. It was people who engaged Congress.
I don’t think the anti-political engagement loudmouths are really the core problem. The deeper problem is the lack of a robust culture of political engagement on the left. The anti-political engagement loudmouths just give voice to the underlying alienation and lack of a robust culture of political engagement.
A related problem is the bizarre notion that the strength of the peace movement should be primarily judged by how many demonstrations we have and how many people attend them. The strength of the peace movement must be judged by how close we come to winning in our efforts at political engagement.
To give you an idea of how widespread this problem of alienation from political engagement is: in my town, we had a MoveOn vigil Monday evening against the war. Eighty people came, according to the local press. I asked the crowd: how many of you have called our Representative in Congress? Forty people raised their hands. I asked the crowd: how many of you haven’t called our Representative in Congress? Forty people raised their hands. That’s funny, I said to the second group. You’re willing to spend an hour standing with me on a street corner, but you’re not willing to spend five minutes calling our Representative in Congress.
The next time I ask that question, I hope to hear a different response.
The War Powers Resolution Is Crucial, But It Doesn’t Enforce Itself
People who love war hate the War Powers Resolution and they try to run it down. Some claim it’s unconstitutional, which isn’t true: no court has found it so, and that’s what makes something unconstitutional. Or they claim that it doesn’t count because Presidents have ignored it, and that also isn’t true – it isn’t true that Presidents have ignored it, and even to the extent that Presidents have sometimes skirted it, that doesn’t mean it’s not good law that can be invoked to stop a rush to war. Or they claim that the War Powers Resolution allows the President to do whatever the hell he wants for 60 days, which also isn’t true: as President Obama affirmed before he was President, under the Constitution and War Powers Resolution the President uses the military forces of the United States for armed attack pursuant to one of three things: an attack or imminent threat of attack on the United States, a Congressional declaration of war, or a Congressional authorization of the use of military force.
What’s true is that the War Powers Resolution doesn’t enforce itself. Congress has to enforce it, which means, ultimately, that public opinion has to enforce it. The enforcement is political.
In the few cases where Members of Congress have gone to court to try to enforce the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution, the courts have basically said: with respect to war powers, there’s an overlap between the power of the President and the power of Congress. And our basic view is that whenever there is an overlap between the power of the President and the power of Congress – on war powers or anything else – the power of the President is greatest when Congress hasn’t taken any action, and the power of the President is weakest when Congress has taken action.
So, the courts have said, if Congress sees the President preparing to use military force, and Congress hides in the closet, then don’t come crying to us afterwards.
But if Congress sees the President preparing to use military force, and if Congress takes some action to indicate objection, and if the President were to try to ignore the Congressional objection, the courts would be happy to enforce Congressional power.
At the end of the day, the effective meaning of the Constitution and the law is not what you or I think it should mean based on a plain reading of the text, but whatever the courts say it means. And what the courts have said about Congressional war powers is that if the President threatens to make war without Congressional consent, and Congress doesn’t want him or her to do that, Congress should speak up.
This is why the two letters initiated by Virginia Republican Scott Rigell and California Democrat Barbara Lee in the week before President Obama went to Congress were so crucial. 192 Members of the House did not hide in the closet. 192 Members of the House stood up and said: “Mr. President, you need to come to Congress on this.” If President Obama had tried to ignore Congress after that, he was on dangerous ground.
There’s been a lot of speculation about why President Obama went to Congress – not all of it completely wrong, because there’s multiple causation, but much of it missing the importance of a very basic explanation: because 192 Members of the House publicly demanded it, in compliance with the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution.
The meaning of this for the future should be obvious. In the future, if any President were to claim that he or she has the authority to attack a country (like Iran?) that hasn’t attacked the U.S. without a Congressional vote, and we don’t want that to happen, we need to get Members of Congress to speak up and say, “No, under the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution, you can’t do that.” And that’s how we stop it.
In Blocking a “Rush to War,” Delay is Crucial
It should be obvious that in blocking a “rush to war,” delay is crucial. What’s the opposite of a “rush”? Delay.
This is a key reason that defending the War Powers Resolution is so important. Because the War Powers Resolution causes delay. If the President has to go to Congress, that causes a delay.
What should you do if you’re the first person on the scene in an emergency? Try to stabilize the situation and call for help. Try to keep everyone alive until help arrives. The War Powers Resolution helps us keep everyone alive until help arrives.
So if we find ourselves in this situation in the future, you know what to do. Everybody run and stand next to the War Powers Resolution. The War Powers Resolution is a powerful tool for preventing war. Protect the War Powers Resolution, and the War Powers Resolution will protect you.