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As Iran conflict looms, Congress on Memorial Day has forgotten how to declare war

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May 27, 2019, 12:14 pm
U.S. Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment escort captured enemy prisoners of war to a holding area in the desert of Iraq on March 21, 2003, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. DoD photo by Lance Cpl. Brian L. Wickliffe, U.S. Marine Corps.

I always miss talking to my late father, Col. Cecil Wayne Williams, about matters of national security and the role of Congress and the White House in determining where, when and how the United States goes to war. But I especially miss talking to him about it this time of year because of Memorial Day and the fact he died five years ago this month.

John Bolton

As a retired U.S. Air Force judge advocate general (JAG) who served in Vietnam and around the world during the Cold War, his take was that the United States had become far too lax in how it committed troops to combat in hotspots around the world. He thought Congress should more frequently and formally declare war, and that hasn’t happened since World War II.

Congress has passed resolutions authorizing the use of military force at least seven times since WWII, and conveniently the United States continues to use one aimed at combating terrorism after 9/11 to keep sending troops to places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but Congress has never formally declared war in the never-ending conflicts we wage in the Middle East.

Granted, we are often going into failed or failing states to take on militias, tribes and ideologues bent on spreading terror, fear and insurrection across the globe – so it’s hard to determine exactly whom war should be declared against – but by failing to debate these open-ended authorizations of military force, Congress has basically abdicated a key constitutional responsibility.

The O Zone by David O. Williams
The O. Zone

According to the Cornell Law School, “Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war. The President, meanwhile, derives the power to direct the military after a Congressional declaration of war from Article II, Section 2, which names the President Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.”

But the Vietnam War, Korean War, Iraq War (Parts 1 and 2) and the war in Afghanistan weren’t actually wars, or at least they were never declared so by Congress. To all the U.S. troops and millions of civilians here and around the world whose lives were ended or forever changed by those “authorized uses of military force,” they probably feel a lot like wars.

What difference does it make? That’s a debate my dad and I used to dig into on a regular basis, and it’s a really good question at this particular moment in time when arch-conservative, ultra-hawks like National Security Adviser John Bolton are pushing hard for a unilateral move against Iran.

Bolton and Vice President Dick Cheney, during the President George W. Bush administration, used the now-discredited rationale of weapons of mass destruction to take out Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That was arguably the first falling domino that has led to the ascendance of Iran in the region and the replacement of al Qaeda by Isis as the greatest global terror threat.

As bad as Hussein was, his brutal dictatorship provided some measure of regional security by serving as a check against mostly Shia Muslim Iran and its entrenched aggression against Sunni Muslim majority nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where the United States has a strategic imperative to keep the oil exports flowing through the Persian Gulf.

Cheney and Bolton – both of whom grew wealthy either directly through oil and gas investments or indirectly from investors and super PACs funded by climate science deniers – had a vested interested to keep the U.S. military highly engaged in the Middle East. Now that Bolton is back, all of his old motivations would appear to apply to the current situation in the Gulf region.

He is not interested in the relative security of the Iran nuclear deal, which even Israeli intelligence verified was having the desired effect of keeping Iran from becoming a nuclear power – even if it viewed the rest of the deal as too lax. And Trump seems mainly interested in scrapping the deal because it was brokered by his predecessor, former President Barack Obama.

But the largely isolationist Trump’s motivations need to be examined through the lens of any financial dealings his family and foundation may have with the Saudis – a top three oil producing and exporting nation. Ditto the United Arab Emirates – a top 10 nation in both categories.

Clearly those nations, with their own history of also exporting terror (see nation of origin for the majority of 9/11 hijackers) would love to eliminate Iran as a rival and dominate the Gulf for decades to come as the primary exporters of cheap petroleum around the globe.

And none of these players have any interest in Congress debating the wisdom of exporting arms to the Saudis or going to war yet again in the region – even as Trump has advocated for a pullout and the world largely ignores the systematic mass starvation and genocidal proxy war being waged by the Saudis and Iran in Yemen.

Nor do they want to talk about climate science as Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo whisper in Trump’s ear about rolling back carbon-emission regulations and limiting the study of global warming. They want to keep our global foot on the gas when it comes to burning fossil fuels here and around the world.

My dad frequently made the argument that Congress would be much more engaged, and in fact the voting public would be far more interested in all of this if we returned to a compulsory draft, which the United States got rid of in 1973 after years of violent street protests against the undeclared Vietnam War.

According to the U.S. Selective Services Administration, “The United States military has been all-volunteer since 1973. But the government maintains the ability to reinstate the draft in case of a national emergency.” Think about that next time your 18-year-old registers for the draft and Trump declares national emergencies for things like a surge of immigrants at the border.

What do you think, would the resumption of the compulsory draft make our endless wars in the Middle East more of an election issue in 2020? Would that get Congress to finally and seriously resume its constitutional obligation of declaring war?

When the history books look back at this period 100 years from now, will scholars really differentiate between kicking Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991, taking him out completely in 2003 and the ripple effects we’ve been dealing with economically and environmentally ever since? Or will they all be lumped into one long foreign misadventure to prop up fossil fuel production?

I really miss having these discussions with my dad, even as I remember him for his long and distinguished service to our country on Memorial Day and every day as this great nation struggles on into an uncertain future. I have a feeling he would be as critical of Trump, Bolton and Pompeo now as he was of Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for our incursion into Libya in 2011. At the very least we would agree Congress needs to act.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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