On War and Declarations of War
British lawmakers on Thursday delivered a stunning rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid to punish the government of Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons, citing skepticism over the misinformation used to back the Iraq war as a reason for staying out of Syria and raising the prospect that any U.S.-led strike would go ahead without its staunchest military ally.
The move came as a severe blow both to Cameron — a Conservative Party hawk on Syria — and to U.S. hopes of securing a Britain as a cornerstone of a coalition. After an eight-hour debate, Cameron lost a vote that was seen as a symbolic, preliminary motion setting up a final vote in the days ahead. The failure of even the weaker piece of legislation, in a 285 to 272 vote, suggested that Cameron faces overwhelming opposition to the idea of Britain joining any strikes.
All this is just as it should be: The representatives of the people decided the question of war, and this time around they said no. The morning headline today is damning by contrast:
No, Mr. Obama, you do not. We live under a written constitution, and that constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Without a declaration, you may act only in case of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”
Not one of those things has happened in Syria, nor is there even a vaguely plausible scenario by which they might. There isn’t even a fig leaf of justification to this intervention. It is simply warmaking by executive fiat. It is precisely what our Constitution was designed to prevent. It is a lawless and illegitimate act.
The power to declare war was not given to Congress by accident. Nor is it some arcane ritual of a bygone era.
No, this arrangement was done by conscious design: so that the representatives of the individuals who would fight, risk their lives, and die might first decide whether the matter was compelling enough to demand such a sacrifice. The Parliament of the United Kingdom has just said no, and there is reason to believe that our Congress would say no too, if only they were asked. It doesn’t look like they will be.
Entrusting to Congress the power to declare war is an anti-war measure. It exists to keep us out of war. Congress — flighty, irresolute, perpetually deadlocked — would not act in concert except in fairly dire circumstances. And none who had to face the wrath of a democratic electorate would send those voters out on a war if national defense did not absolutely compel it. Or so the thinking went.
It’s not a perfect system; none are. But the founders knew very well the history of Europe in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. They had seen quite enough of executive warmaking. That approach brought Europe perpetual war, perpetual turmoil, and an empty, puffed-up “glory” for monarchs who gained little, lost little, and risked absolutely nothing while slaughtering each others’ subjects.
The United States, our founders promised, would be different. As a republic, we would not treat our citizens, or the citizens of any other country, as gambit pawns. We are individuals, and so are they, and we are not fodder for the growing of empires. That, anyway, was the idea.
How sad that Europe now is showing us the error of our ways.