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Monday, February 05, 2007

Tug o' war and Constitution

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Now that the Super Bowl is over, we can return fulltime to idolizing Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

Just kidding. But now that I have your attention, does anyone think that the Iraq war is pushing us into a constitutional crisis? President Bush, citing his constitutional powers as commander in chief, says he decides whether to increase U.S. troops in Iraq. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and others are holding out the possibility that constitutionally they can force an end to the war by defunding the troops.

True, this isn't as much fun as fulminating about Joe "Mouth-Run-Amuck" Biden's remark that Obama is the first "clean" African-American presidential candidate, or laying into Democratic hypocrisy for giving Biden a pass while skewering former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) for his "macaca" comment.

But it's more important, because America's system of checks and balances could face a tough test. The Constitution's framers separated our government's powers to prevent the abuse of governmental powers exercised by kings and would-be tyrants, such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. The framers, tutored by such political theorists of their time as Baron de Montesquieu, concluded that the best way to check the abuse of governmental power was to divvy it up among different, sometimes competing, branches of government. Hence, the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our federal government.

It has worked well, except when an issue falls into that in-between gray area, when opposing branches stubbornly claim jurisdiction. Such as with war powers. The Constitution explicitly gives the president the exclusive power to command the armed forces, meaning he gets to decide how they are used. The Constitution gives Congress the explicit power to declare war, and to raise and support armies.

But does it give Congress the power to undeclare a war? Can it tell the president to roll it all up and send everyone home? Anti-war lawmakers say it can, because only Congress can appropriate the money that the president spends, whether it is on a war or a memorial to the late bandleader Lawrence Welk. Without money to, say, buy ammo, the Army would have no choice but to pack up and fly home. Or stay with empty rifles and be slaughtered. One might say that no congressman in his right mind would want to leave the president with that sort of choice.

On the other hand, Congress can appropriate money for, say, sending the troops "over the horizon" to Kuwait, but the chief executive can defy Congress (beyond using his veto) by simply refusing to deploy the troops.

This could be a fine mess, precisely the kind of dispute that the Supreme Court often wants to avoid. So what to do? Congress can't raise its own army to "force" the president to do what it wants. The president can't send a tank or two over to Capitol Hill to make Congress do what he wants.

So, it comes back to doing what is reasonable and wise. And if you want a case in which it was unreasonable and unwise for Congress to conduct a war and, in effect, make foreign policy (another of the president's explicit powers), check out how the Vietnam War ended. Officially, the Paris Peace Accords, negotiated by the chief executive, ended it, but the war between the North and the South continued with our chiseled-in-stone promise to reply with "severe retaliatory action" if the North ever violated the treaty.

Which the North did by expanding its military force in the South. President Gerald Ford confessed he could do nothing about it because Congress had passed the Case-Church Amendment that forbade any more U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. All Ford could do was respond with diplomatic protests, which further emboldened the North and demoralized the South. When Congress subsequently withdrew its financial aid for the South, the end came. It was a North Vietnamese tank that broke down the gates to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, not a pajama-clad Viet Cong. Thanks to Congress, we lost an ally and the North imposed a brutal and deadly regime on the South.

Notwithstanding the Constitution, it has been a long-held belief and practice that the conduct of wars and foreign policy belong to the president.

That's for a reason. Because while the president might or might not bungle how he uses those powers, it is nearly certain that Congress will.

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

2 comments: said...

you were wrong on yuor comment - we haave protection from kings and tyrants-we lost that potection whenour government removed the origial 13th amt. from the constitution without telling us abouy the treason they were doing-now bush is comiting treason again by his nafta road and noth american union

antiquelord said...

Your characterization of Congress as the supposed anti-war villans responsible for the calamitous loss of a supposedly strong ally in South Vietnam and as potential repeat offenders in the Iraq conflict reflects the usual narrow right wing Manicheist mentality that must ascribe evil to a single source. The Case-Church amendment you referred to required Congressional approval to provide further military aid to Vietnam rather than total prohibitiion and was not an actioin taken by them in isolation from the democratic processes of this nation. The public, rightly or wrongly, was simply tired of the heavy costs of supporting a corrupt and inept South Vietnamese government that had minimal popular support and Congress got the message. A wise decision as it turned out that the North Vietnamese takeover was not a serious threat to our national interests, contrary to what I was told when I served in the military during that period. With reference to Iraq, the main question seems to be how can we extricate ourselves from this fiasco and direct our efforts to opposing international terrorism where we really have a chance to be effective. The human suffering caused in both Vietnam and Iraq, partially the results of our involvment, is a legitimate and highly charged issue as is human rights all over the world. Unfortunately, we cannot solve all abuses , not that we have tried, having ignored many such abuses when it was politically expedient. I can't remember many on the right advocating intervention in Chile when mass murder by the government was ocurring there. Only the most deluded still want to characterize the Iraq situation as other than religious/ethnic division. The intensity of violence and long history of dissention suggests this problem will not be solved quickly or simply. Our continued involvement is merely digging us deeper into a hole without a ladder to escape. I am aware that withdrawal without "victory" grates against patriotic fervor but comon sense and "realpolitik" cannot be ignored. Think of the conservatives who left conflicts without "victory" rather than the cliched "cut and run" pronouncements we hear today thrown at those who don't want to "stay the course". Eisenhower took us out of Korea. Nixon out of Vietnam. Reagan reversed his early mistake and got out of Lebanon. For conservative Francophiles don't forget DeGaulle and Algeria. They assessed difficult situations and acted in the national interest. Emotionalism is not a sufficent basis to ask Americans to be killed and resources to be squandered. This is still a democracy and yes, there should be a way to put the brakes on a runaway train before it wrecks completely. Given a President who has gambled all on a illusion of self glorification, ignored all the warning flags and has little left to lose, who can bring this out of control driver to a halt?