The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Charlie Savage, has a must-read article today in which he reminds us of a fundamental truth about the history of Congressional efforts to end wars: while there have been many examples of Congress voting to end authorizations and/or to cut off funding for ill-conceived military adventures, such efforts, even when nominally endorsed by the President, almost invariably failed when the Presidency is held by pro-war Republicans willing to ignore the law.
Savage recites example after example of such efforts, some successful, others disastrously not, but in the failed examples, Congressional efforts failed because a right-wing Republican President with unconstitutionally expansive views of executive power refused to accept Congress’ authority to tell the President what to do. Thus, even when Congress repealed the Tonkin Gulf resolution and prohibited Nixon from using US forces in Cambodia, the President refused to obey the law:
War opponents’ hopes were dashed. Despite signing the bills, President Nixon said he had independent authority as commander in chief to keep combat in Vietnam going. For the next two years, Congress failed to agree on further restrictions, and nearly 3,000 more American soldiers died. Nixon finally ended the war on his own terms with a cease – fire agreement in January 1973.
Savage notes that successful Congressional efforts at ending military actions depended on genuine Presidential concurrence:
There is ample historical precedent for Congress imposing limits on what presidents can do with US troops in the midst of a war, specialists say. But in all previous such cases, Congress was working with a president who was willing to sign its bills into law, usually as a negotiated compromise.
In Vietnam, for example, Congress banned ground combat troops from Laos and Thailand in 1969, and from Cambodia in 1970. And in July 1973, when the combat in Vietnam was over anyway, lawmakers cut off funds for further military action in Indochina — a gesture that prevented the United States from restarting the war after the North Vietnamese broke the cease-fire agreement in 1975.
But if a President opposed Congress on the issue, all of the arguments that Congress has no authority to tell a President what do to in matters of war surfaced. And Savage notes that we are seeing exactly those arguments today:
Prompted in part by Cheney, the Bush administration has championed an aggressive view of executive power under which Congress cannot restrict the commander in chief’s options, short of cutting off funds for the troops. This constitutional interpretation, which is disputed by many legal scholars, has surfaced repeatedly in recent months.
On May 1, when Bush vetoed the Iraq timetable bill, he told Congress that it was unconstitutional “because it purports to direct the conduct of the operations of the war in a way that infringes upon the powers vested in the presidency by the Constitution, including as commander in chief of the armed forces.”
Last Tuesday, Bush sent Congress a letter threatening to veto any defense bill that restricted his options not only for dealing with Iraq, but also with Iran. His letter asserted that the Constitution “exclusively” commits to him alone the power to decide how to use military or covert force in such national security situations.
And in a news conference Thursday, Bush repeated again his view that Congress can only decide whether to fund the war — but that all other decisions were for the commander in chief.
In that news conference, Bush also said he would not want to establish a precedent by agreeing to let Congress share in setting troop levels. If Bush refuses to obey laws restricting his conduct of the war, scholars said, it could take months for Congress and the courts to strike back — a process that might take too long to complete before he leaves office.
“If the executive branch is determined to push its powers to the brink of what they can get away with, the problem for the other branches is that any response they can make within a system of checks and balances takes time,” said Peter Shane , an Ohio State law professor.
Added Barron: “It’s a perfect storm for a constitutional crisis.”
Congressional Democrats are working to change our Iraq policies by persuading sufficient Republicans to join in imposing a different strategy on a recalcitrant President and Vice President. But as Glenn Greenwald rightly points out, what’s left of the Republican Party has so thorougly embraced this war and the mindset supporting it that it may be incapable of providing sufficient votes to rein in this Administration. This is their war, and their base won’t let them let go.
The importance of this history is that it suggests that Congressional efforts to end the Iraq occupation and/or redeploy US forces to other regions or into more “limited” missions, while politically worth pursuing, are highly likely to fail in actually changing policies, even if they eventually receive 60 Senate votes. What our history tells us is that if Congress truly wants to alter America’s policies in Iraq, a winning strategy probably requires removing the war’s zealous champions from the White House and encouraging the American people to relegate the Party of Aggressive War to 40 years in the political wilderness.