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Whatever happened to talking about a war before launching it?

COMMENTARY | March 27, 2012

A former CIA station chief calls for a national discussion about the efficacy of foreign intervention -- and its parameters -- before we blunder into another war without pausing to think things through.

By Haviland Smith

Over the past dozen years, the United States has spent vast amounts of its human treasure and national resources on a series of foreign interventions. We have now been involved in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya -- with Syria, Iran and Central Africa representing candidates for the immediate future.

All of this has been and is being done without declarations of war, over the supine body of our Congress, without the agreement of the majority of the American people and without real scrutiny from the press. We have become a nation of onlookers.

In the United States, Congress has the power under the constitution to "declare war". However neither the U.S. Constitution nor the law tell us what format a declaration of war must take. The last time Congress passed joint resolutions saying that a "state of war" existed was on June 5, 1942, when the U.S. declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Since then, the U.S. has used the term "authorization to use military force", as was the case against Iraq in 2003.

For a variety of reasons, all of which are based on local historical, tribal, ethnic and national realities, our adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are not turning out as we might have wished. Despite early warnings from our governmental and academic experts on those areas, it seems clear that any hopes we had for bettering the situations that existed there are likely to fail. And just as our military involvement in the region has led to instability in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, it almost certainly will if we succumb to local and international pressures to become involved in Syria and Iran. And now we are told we should become militarily involved in Central Africa.

One key ingredient is missing. Because two Presidents have act in ways that made Congress disposed to support them without stopping to have a real debate, we have never had a national discussion about the efficacy of American military intervention abroad.

Over the past year, two thirds of Americans polled have said they are opposed to our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the specific prospect of military activity in Syria and Iran, it is time for America to have this discussion.

First, we need to discuss whether or not we want to conduct such operations at all. If so, should we act independently of the United Nations and international coalitions, or unilaterally -- as many of our hawks and neocons would wish?

We need to define the problem and the solution. We need to know the precise goal of the intervention, how long it will last and what the likely response will be.

Then we need to know how it will be paid for. Are there to be more debt-funded interventions like Iraq and Afghanistan at a time when we are already in deep economic trouble resulting from our past interventionist adventures?

If the intervention involves terrorism, we need to discuss limiting to police and intelligence work. We have learned far too much from Iraq and Afghanistan to again involve our military establishment in counterterrorism operations.

If an insurgency is involved, we need to know how our government plans to avoid subsequent nation building and further attempts to export democracy. Again, Iraq and Afghanistan provide the wholly negative lesson for us here.

Finally, we must determine whether or not any proposed intervention is in our true national interest -- and we need to do that in the absence of foreign pressures.

The only way we will learn the answers to these critical questions is through a national discussion of any proposed future intervention.  Our government isn't holding such a debate except for a little squawking by individuals now and then.  The media should and could do so, with one or more news organizations making it a front-burner item, interviewing experts and political leaders and staying on the subject.

BIDMC Harvard Medical School
Posted by Paul Spirn, MD
03/27/2012, 01:04 PM

Exactly right The exclusive authority and responsibility of Congress to declare war is one tenet of strict construction of the Constitution that the Right Wing, with the exception of Ron Paul, have consistently orphaned. And a public discussion of rationale, goals, benefits and costs of military actio should precede Congressional debate.

Posted by Shane E. Mahoney
03/29/2012, 08:04 PM

Haviland Smith is exactly right — "In the United States, Congress has the power under the constitution to "declare war". However neither the U.S. Constitution nor the law tell us what format a declaration of war must take." What's more, the Constitution does not even say that Congress must declare war before the CinC can commit our military forces to combat action. As for congressional debate prior to military action, it is worth recalling that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (which might be regarded as a declaration of war) included such debate, while Lincoln's initiation of hostilities against North Carolina didn't. Of course, had Kennedy taken the issue of Soviet missiles in Cuba to the Congress, the outcome of the entire event would likely have been very different. Unfortunately, the conduct of foreign policy and the related issue of military force have never corresponded nicely to conventional notions of what the Constitution requires. On the other hand, in matters that engage the U.S. with powers outside our own Constitutional system, Presidential wisdom and caution seem much more important than the application of a legal formula.

Posted by taikan
04/04/2012, 05:39 PM

Smith correctly notes that recent polls show that a majority of Americans do not support our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, at the time Congress authorized President Bush to use military force in each of those countries, a significant majority of the American public, without pausing to learn the facts and without thinking about the consequences, supported American military intervention in both of those countries.

The real problem is that Congress, the members of which should know better, acted like the majority of Americans who made up their minds without regard for the facts or the consequences, and authorized the use of military force without going through the analytical process, including consideration of the long term impacts on national interests, that should be required before the US military ever intervenes in another country.

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