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Free Liberal: Coordinating towards higher values

Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Only Congress Can Declare War

By Paul Gessing

As the American death toll in Iraq has grown to 2,000, the fact that Iraq is America’s first oversees war debacle of the new century is becoming widely known and appreciated not only by Americans, but also by a majority of the media.

Now is the time for building a mainstream antiwar movement. Having failed to stop the war before it started through massive worldwide protests, the antiwar movement needs to look for tools that will appeal to and educate mainstream Americans while demanding that Members of Congress go on record as to whether or not they will uphold their Constitutional responsibilities over the nation’s foreign policy Although they may disagree on an array of other issues, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, and independents, not to mention those who typically do not closely follow politics, can and must be integrated into a movement that bases itself on a non-threatening, antiwar message that reinforces what is best about the United States rather than focusing on its shortcomings.

As I see it, the biggest single problem facing the nation is the fact that nearly all foreign policymaking power is now held by the executive branch. The fact is that if President Bush chose to invade Iran or North Korea tomorrow, he could do so without asking for Congressional approval. Although this would theoretically be legal if president’s cited the War Powers Act under which the president has 90 days after introducing troops into hostilities to obtain congressional approval of that action. However, presidents have repeatedly ignored both the War Powers Act and the Constitution’s clear delegation of authority to declare war to Congress in Article I, Section 8. Instead, they have relied on the shaky Constitutional interpretation under Article II that names the president as Commander in Chief of the armed forces. To all but the most biased or uneducated observers, the Founders clearly intended for Congress to make foreign policy while presidents were to carry out Congressional intent. This is after all how the rest of our government operates, it only makes sense that this system of checks and balances would carry over to foreign policy.

So, with the pro-war movement in disarray resulting from an American President’s latest foreign policy adventure and a majority of Americans now calling the war a mistake, the antiwar movement needs to come up with a solution. Clearly, what passes for a modern antiwar movement leaves much to be desired and has not worked. Even the most sane and rational protesters are dismissed by a media that is more interested in generating controversy than listening to political rhetoric. Worse, politicians and pro-war interests can easily use the extreme political agendas of some in the movement to paint any war opponent as “anti-American.”

One possible tool for the antiwar community that would both give it credibility and could be used as a foothold in mainstream political circles might be modeled on Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge. By getting elected officials and candidates for elected office to go on record by pledging to oppose higher taxes, Norquist has rallied a broad-based movement that includes everyone from grassroots activists to K Street lobbyists all fighting against higher taxes.

The antiwar movement can and should adopt some of these techniques and messaging tools. Instead of an anti-tax pledge, we need an “antiwar” pledge that appeals to mainstream Americans and might be supported by their elected officials, but is simple enough in message to become a tool against elected officials who refuse to take or choose to ignore their pledges.

Rather than providing a blanket antiwar statement (which would be politically unacceptable to many), the message of the pledge should hinge on restoring Congress’s proper dominion over foreign policy, specifically its power to declare war. It could read something like this, “I pledge to vote against and oppose any and all resolutions in support of military intervention abroad in the absence of an explicit declaration of war by the United States Congress.” There are a number of benefits to an antiwar pledge that is both moderate in tone and couched in the Constitution, but among the most important aspects of this statement is that it would shield advocates from the criticism that they are “anti-American” because they oppose a particular war.

Some hard-core war opponents will find this pledge inadequate because it does not ask for an explicit pledge of opposition to war on the part of Congress, but by demanding that Members of Congress go on record as opposing undeclared wars by the executive branch – as all wars have been since World War II – it could provide the spark for a reassertion of Congress’s proper authority over our nation’s foreign policy. Better yet, rather than setting the antiwar community in opposition to politicians, the media, and the military, the pledge, by aligning itself with the Constitution, sets politicians against the Constitution and the military. After all, whether or not you supported the war in Iraq, most Americans would admit that Congress – and the American people – could have benefited from a much more thorough debate over not only the merits of war, but the facts upon which this war was started. Forcing Congress to be the ultimate arbiter of future wars would hopefully push them to more thoroughly analyze the situation.

Because this idea is so important to me and because a strong, mainstream, antiwar movement is so important to this country, I am genuinely interested in receiving feedback from readers on this idea. I want to know whether the ideas I have laid out will work and what criticisms there may be. No pledge is perfect and even Grover Norquist’s pledge is violated frequently, but it is a starting point for putting Members of Congress on record as to what their responsibilities are and for providing a rallying point for an antiwar movement that appeals to large numbers of Americans. Please contact me if you would like to dialog on this issue at

Paul J. Gessing is a senior editor of the Free Liberal and sits on the Board of Directors of the Center for Liberty and Community. He works in public policy and has recently finished his MBA at the University of Maryland. Paul has previously worked for the Marijuana Policy Project and for Congressman Bernie Sanders. His writings have been published in the Washington Post, Washington Times, and U.S. News & World Report.

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