Sunday, April 30, 2006

The War Powers Act and Iran

In 1964 the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and provided President Lyndon Johnson the legal cover he needed to prosecute the Vietnam War. Partly, the Tonkin Resolution stemmed from the expansion of presidential powers that took place during World War Two under FDR and the Cold War under the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy Administrations. The threats to our national security were real and Americans believed whatever their presidents told them.

That changed when Presidents Johnson and Nixon sundered America’s honor and confidence to pursue an un-winnable and immoral war. The body counts multiplied and social unrest intensified as “peace with honor” eluded the grasp of Johnson and Nixon. Congress was stuck with a mistake it couldn’t undue and never wanted to repeat again.

Hence, Congress in 1973 enacted the War Powers Act. It requires the White House to regularly consult with Congress whenever contemplating military action, written notification within 48 hours of such action and its’ estimated “scope or duration” and congressional consent through either a declaration of war or "specific statutory authorization." Once invoked, the act prohibits a president from keeping the troops deployed for more than 90 days unless congress either declares war or passes a joint resolution upholding the president's policy.

One can make a compelling argument that the War Powers Act is an egregious example of legislative overreach. Indeed, the Constitution empowers the president as commander and chief of the armed forces. Presumably, this gives the President the authority to repel sudden attacks and deploy forces as he or she sees fit to contend with perceived threats. The act appears to encroach upon the President's authorithy as commander and chief. It can also be argued that this act amounts to dangerous micromanaging by the legislative branch.

Politically, no congress has dared to take on the executive branch and invoke the War Powers Act since its passage 33 years ago. Once hostilities are engaged the natural inclination is for the public to rally behind the president. During the early stages of a military conflict a president is at their high water mark of political strength and congress typically becomes docile.

Strategically, in most instances invoking the War Powers Act may also be dangerous if the president is forced to withdraw forces prematurely. America’s enemies may perceive it as a sign of weakness.

If I seem uncomfortable with the War Powers Act it’s because I am. Far preferable is for the president to respect the Constitution and not initiate pre-emptive wars without congressional authority and for the legislature to assert its’ prerogatives and demand justification and assurances before hostilities are engaged. Invoking the War Powers Act is an extreme measure rife with risks and repercussions that we can’t possibly foresee.

Sadly, however we’re living in extreme times. The first President Bush didn’t believe he needed any congressional authority in 1991. Had Congress not given it to him he would’ve pursued Desert Storm anyway. In 2002-03 the current President Bush also would’ve plunged ahead without any congressional authority.

In a way both congresses were effectively coerced into supporting each war with Iraq whether there was popular support for them or not. Neither congress was about to invoke the War Powers Act if either President Bush went ahead without congressional authorization and everyone knew it. Now three years after President Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq he's once again beating the drums of war. Indeed, if Seymour Hersh’s reporting is to be believed, war with Iran is inevitable.

Putting aside whether one agrees with military intervention in Iran or not (I’m vehemently opposed for moral and strategic reasons), we have ample proof that this administration is not competent to manage a conflict with Iran. The Pentagon is currently imploding from within due to their lack of confidence in Donald Rumsfeld because of his mismanagement of our current war with Iraq. Furthermore, the diplomatic aftershocks following a military strike in Iran would require tremendous skill and finesse. Skill and finesse is simply not part of this administration’s DNA

I have no confidence in this administration’s ability to competently process parking tickets. I certainly don’t have faith in their ability to manage a war with Iran and the resulting diplomatic turbulence. It would be an absolute calamity for our country, the Iranian people, and the world.

In spite of the Iranian President’s irrational boasts the threat is not immediate. Indeed his threats are really about enhancing his leverage internationally with the United States North Korean style as well as domestic politics. Also, unlike 1981 when Israel bombed Iraq there are no easy cocksure targets.

Our best weapon against the current regime is time and patience. The myriad of factions and entities within Iran’s bureaucracy and society are hungering for western contact. Covert diplomacy with the regime’s political adversaries may be more effective and realistic than doing anything needlessly rash. Demographically this is a population that is young, restless, and receptive to western culture. They are Iran's future face if we don’t disrupt the evolution currently taking place.

Sometimes we Americans just have to get over our arrogance, hubris, and belief that we're entitled to absolute guaranteed security because we're Americans. The real world doesn't work that way. We do have limitations and a mature society knows when not to overreach. Anyone who believes strategic air strikes or invasion is a viable option is delusional.

However, this President is deluded and that's becoming embedded in our conventional wisdom. Bush is even more deluded then Nicholas II during the final days of Czarist Russia. Politically, he may find it impossible to obtain a congressional resolution for war this time. In spite of polls indicating a slight majority favoring strikes the Democrats are not likely to cooperate and even some congressional Republicans such as Chuck Hagel understand that Bush is off his rocker.

Off his rocker or not Bush retains command of our armed forces and he’s trigger-happy. The only way to stop him may be by invoking the War Powers Act and forcing a constitutional crisis. We can expect the Bush Administration would challenge congress’s authority facilitating far reaching political disruption and trauma for the country. However, allowing a war with Iran to go forward would be even worse.


josephus said...

The thought of invoking the War Powers Act is a rational one, except for the reality that the U.S. House is perhaps more irrational on the point of U.S. exceptionalism than the president.

Anonymous said...

The Gulf of Tonkin incident, as was later revealed when classified papers were released to the NY Times, was also a fabricated incident. However, by dishonestly presenting it as an attack and threat to American security (rather like Bush did with WMD in Iraq), Johnson was able to justify the Vietnam war to Congress.

Bill said...

The Gulf of Tonkin was just as legitimate as the NIE on Iraq. Two wrongs don't make a right but three lefts do. Maybe just one more wrong and the thing will actually straighten itself out. They seem to have a rich menu to choose form, illegal immigration, avian flu, out of gas, North Korea, (the first war we never won) and even Iran want's to be a super power with the ability to commit suicide.

thepoetryman said...

"Sometimes we Americans just have to get over our arrogance, hubris, and belief that we're entitled to absolute guaranteed security because we're Americans. The real world doesn't work that way. We do have limitations and a mature society knows when not to overreach. Anyone who believes strategic air strikes or invasion is a viable option is delusional."

I liked that so much I had to paste it in your comments. Wow. Succinct and peppered with a truth that eludes so many people in this country! Very nice. i like this blog and am adding you to my "Echoing Voices" section on mine own. Thank you for your post!

We didn't win in Vietnam and Iran will not be committing suicide. The US attacks and it's flat out murder.

liberal journal man said...

Excellent website. Mine shares a similar title,

You're correct. One Constitutional Law scholar has deemed it similar to the fuerer principle in Nazi Germany, where the executive holds all authority. It is clear that Pres. Bush is transforming his office to be superior to the other branches of government and to marginalize Congress into something akin to the 17th Century British Parliament. Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe wrote about the President's abuse this past sunday, explaining that the President employs signing statements rather than vetoes, so that he can enforce the law as he sees fit, disabling Congress from overriding a veto or clarifying the language in the bill. God help us all.

I will post a link for your website on my page...

Andrew J. Lederer said...

Couldn't find an e-mail link, so have to ask this here --

How do you get your blog url to appear as a link in your HuffPo comments? I use the regular link tags and it doesn't work.

(You can e-mail me through my blog --
(See, I know how to do it! But not on HuffPo!)

elten said...

"Furthermore, the diplomatic 'aftershocks' following a military strike in Iran would require tremendous skill and finesse. Skill and finesse is simply not part of this administration’s DNA"

What are implied here are the aftershocks in New Delhi, Beijing, Moskou and Ankara. I would like to link here to's excellent articles on US relations with these capitals, notably a recent one on the cooling of US-Turkey relations (in view of the Iran issue).
Not to forget Brussels, Paris and Berlin. See Merkel's tying in into Russia's energy policies.
But the main point here is that, given the lack of diplomatic DNA in Washington, these 'aftershocks' risk becoming major all-out 'shocks', rather than a diplomatic management risk.
After all, you cannot start three wars in a row and just believe the rest of the world will watch on in bewilderment.
Anyway, don't worry about 'aftershocks' from The Hague (where I hail from). We will be happily floating on the 'ripples' of the 'aftershock' and lend you some of our 1600 combat troups now to be stationed (on US request) in Uruzgan, which is not too far from Iran.