In Matters of War, Congress Is Worse Than Useless

Congressional abdication on war powers has been a disaster for the United States over the last seventy years.

Stephen Wertheim makes a good case that Congress needs to take up its responsibilities in matters of war:

Mr. Biden inherited this situation, but he need not perpetuate either the ongoing wars or the legal evasions that enable them. He could tell Congress this: It has six months to issue a formal declaration of the wars it wants to continue, or else the troops (and planes and drones) are coming home.

Were he to deliver such an ultimatum, Mr. Biden would, in a stroke, usher in a new era of U.S. foreign policy.

Illegal presidential warfare is the bane of representative government. We should not allow presidents to start and wage wars without Congressional approval. It not only makes a mockery of the ideas of self-government and democratic accountability, but it also produces terrible foreign policy outcomes on a regular basis. If the U.S. is going to go to war, it should be our elected representatives in Congress that make that decision, and then they will have to answer for the decision they made. Unfortunately, the last twenty years have shown us that Congress is mostly useless in this area when it is not actually doing harm.

Congressional abdication on war powers has been a disaster for the United States over the last seventy years. In practice, Congress has either done nothing or it has served as a reliable rubber stamp whenever the president wants to initiate hostilities against another country. All that it usually takes to get Congress to pass authorizations for the use of military force is a few lies about a menacing foreign threat. Virtually everyone now sees that Congress was profoundly wrong to give Lyndon Johnson carte blanche to wage war in Southeast Asia, but at the time there were only two dissenting votes in one chamber. The 2002 Iraq AUMF is now widely seen to be a similarly colossal error, but it passed both houses by wide margins.

It’s true that presidents have become accustomed during the war on terror to start wars without so much as checking in with Congress, but if they bothered to ask do we think that Congress would turn them down? This is not a recent problem. Even when the U.S. Congress formally declared war, the votes were never close. That isn’t because the case for war was so strong in every instance. It was because Congress was always so pathetically deferential and easily caught up in nationalist hysteria. Even when the Senate tried to rein in Woodrow Wilson’s preposterous intervention in Russia after it had begun, they could not pass the measure. It has always been politically safer to side with militarism and aggression, and that is what most politicians will do.

There is no other practical institutional check on presidential warmaking except for Congress, and there is no institution less inclined to check presidential overreach in practice than Congress. When the president wants to start a war, they are happy to let him do what he wants and duck responsibility, and when he wants to end one most of them are only too eager to distance themselves from that decision, too. Congress will neglect its oversight when the wars drag on for decades, and then at the first sign of trouble during a withdrawal they will clamor for hearings so that they can pin the blame on anyone but themselves.

The cynical, opportunistic behavior of many supposed supporters of ending the war in Afghanistan over the last two weeks is further proof that most members of Congress are far too cowardly to reclaim the authority that they have ceded to the executive. When push comes to shove, most of them would rather run and hide while blaming the president for everything. The disreputable Sen. Josh Hawley is a good example of this. When Biden announced U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan this spring, Hawley criticized Biden for being too slow in getting troops out, but otherwise cheered on the decision to end U.S. involvement. Now that there has been a horrific ISIS terrorist attack in Kabul that killed more than a dozen Americans and 60 Afghans, Hawley has rediscovered his normal reflexive hawkishness and denounced Biden for a decision that he claimed to have supported a few months earlier. As if to underscore how craven his flip-flop is, Hawley has even called for Biden’s resignation when he should have resigned in shame months ago for his own disgraceful conduct. With contemptible fools like this in the Senate, how can Congress possibly reclaim its authority?

In the end, we get the Congress and the foreign policy that we are willing to tolerate. If we as Americans don’t want a militaristic foreign policy that leads to endless war, we have to vote out the members of Congress that enable and support that kind of foreign policy and choose better representatives to replace them. Congress won’t do anything unless most of the members believe it is in their political interest to rein in the warfare state, and they won’t believe that until they start paying a political price for backing one pointless war after another. In matters of war, most members of Congress are worse than useless. Most of them are part of the problem, and that won’t change until they fear that their default hawkishness will hurt their political prospects.