Replacing the War Powers Act

Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and John McCain (R-AZ) want to get rid of the War Powers Act — slogan: “Consistently Ignored by Presidents Since 1973!” — and replace it with something that might actually work and better reflect realities of U.S. military operations today. Here’s the Wikipedia summary of the existing law, which officially is called the “War Powers Resolution of 1973“:

The War Powers Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war. The resolution was passed by two-thirds of Congress, overriding a presidential veto.

 
The failed presidential veto was by Richard Nixon, the year before his resignation, but Congress was responding to significant public outrage about the secret, unauthorized bombings in Cambodia during the Vietnam War — which, while authorized by Congress, had also never been declared. (In fact, the last formal Declaration of War was part of World War II.)

Although it’s no surprise that Nixon rejected the legitimacy of the law — given his unusually heightened aversion to the legitimacy of applying any law to the U.S. Presidency — every president since then (except for possibly one incident in 1975 under President Ford, who had fairly recently been elevated directly from and by the legislative branch to the White House via the resignations of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon) has also officially refused to acknowledge its constitutionality as a general principle.

Even so, to be on the safe side, presidents have generally unofficially adhered to it by providing the proper notice to Congress more or less as a “courtesy” without acknowledging the resolution as the reason. A few instances are disputed as to whether this notice was provided. Congress has never been able to successfully enforce the resolution or end any conflicts with it, and the Supreme Court won’t get into the middle of that inter-branch fight.

Tim Kaine essentially feels this situation is absurd, as well as out of date, and he wants a compromise that preserves the ability of the executive to act quickly when necessary but also preserves the rights of Congress to have a say and maintain accountability. From the ThinkProgress article (linked above):

Rather than only having to notify Congress after launching military action, Kaine and McCain want the force presidents to consult with legislators prior to sending U.S. soldiers, sailors, and pilots into harm’s way.

Under current law, the president has to notify Congress whenever placing forces in areas where “imminent” hostilities are likely, and is given a sixty-day window to conduct the operation absent Congressional approval and another thirty-days allotted towards withdrawal. The new proposal would reduce that autonomy, requiring the Executive Branch to “consult with Congress before ordering deployment into a ‘significant armed conflict,’ or, combat operations lasting, or expected to last, more than seven days.”

That provision would exclude humanitarian missions and covert operations, and the initial consultation could be deferred in time of emergency, but must take place within three days after. The legislation would also raise a new joint committee composed of the heads of the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Intelligence, and Appropriations in both Houses of Congress “to ensure there is a timely exchange of views between the legislative and executive branches, not just notification by the executive.”

Finally, the law, if passed and signed, would require a vote in Congress in support of or against any military operation within 30 days.

 
Now is a relatively good time to try to introduce such a revision, not too long after an angry Congress (and a well-timed revolt in the UK parliament) managed to talk down the Obama Administration from launching a major air campaign in Syria, proving that Congress still had at least a shred of influence on U.S. military actions after more than two decades of rubber-stamping.

But, in 2008, the Obama Campaign more or less signaled their opposition to a similar proposal. While unfortunate, this is not a huge surprise. Most presidents (or presidential hopefuls) reject out of hand any legal limitations on their powers as “commander-in-chief,” even despite the Constitution’s specific and intentional provision reserving the power to declare wars to Congress (a power typically previously wielded only by the monarch heads of state in the Europe of the day against which the Framers were comparing their system). President Obama doesn’t want to limit his own power (or that of his successors) to act decisively and quickly in the face of the “unknown unknowns,” as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously called them.

AFD 68 – War on Poverty 50th Anniversary

Latest Episode:
“AFD 68 – War on Poverty 50th Anniversary”

Bill examines the War on Poverty at year 50, the state of the ongoing Iraq War, and a recent consumer protection victory. (Half episode due to UD Athletics.)

Related links:

– New York Times: “Fifty years later, War on Poverty is a mixed bag”

– BBC (2005): US used white phosphorus in Iraq (Please note that I mistakenly stated in the episode that this article and admission came in 2009, rather than 2005.)

– New York Times: “Qaeda-Linked Militants in Iraq Secure Nearly Full Control of Falluja”

– New York Times: “American Express to pay $75 million over credit card practices”

– AFD: “Another win for the Credit CARD Act of 2009”

Does the US still have leverage in South Sudan?

South Sudan: This is the house that Jack built. If the house is a new state in sub-Saharan Africa and Jack is the United States.

The New York Times identifies one of the more pressing problems in the current crisis:

The problem, analysts say, is that the United States does not have the influence it had before 2011. Then, the South Sudanese needed American aid and support for a referendum. Now they have independence and more than $1 billion a year in oil revenue that used to go to the north.

“Very quickly after independence, we saw increasingly authoritarian instincts, not just on the part of Salva Kiir, but all the members of the South Sudanese political elite,” said Cameron Hudson, a former State Department official who is now the policy director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

This time around, powerful neighbors like Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya are taking a lead role in trying to broker peace.

 
south-sudan-map-ciaOn the one hand, I think that reinforces the need for oil purchase partner China to get involved — particularly as I don’t trust those regional powers to be fair brokers.

On the other hand, it’s also a cautionary tale for the United States in future. That’s a point explored in more depth in the key read from The Guardian, How Hollywood cloaked South Sudan in celebrity and fell for the ‘big lie’.

Non-military solution in Syria?

Finally some good news. John Kerry threw everyone a life preserver ring in an offhand comment yesterday — suggesting an attack could be averted in the unlikely event that Syria agreed to hand over and report all its chemical weapons to international control — and the Russians, the Syrian regime, the UK, and the United Nations Secretary-General immediately backed the idea.

U.S. won’t provide “smoking gun” Syria evidence

Given the insistence that Syria 2013 case ≠ Iraq 2002 case, it’s probably a good idea to make damn sure we know exactly what happened. But the AP has carefully documented the complete lack of “smoking gun” evidence tying it to the regime, though the Pentagon/White House previously declassified lots of satellite images from Syria for other purposes.

We do have reasonable certainty that chemical weapons were used and that they were most likely used by someone aligned with the regime. But we still have seen no evidence that this was ordered by the regime we’re about to “punish” and that it was not some renegade, unauthorized action by a pro-regime unit or commander with access to the chemical weapons. It’s a complicated, opaque conflict with tons of different factions. There’s a lot of reasonable doubt going around.

Here are some key pulls from the AP review:
Excerpt 1:

The U.S. government insists it has the intelligence to prove it, but the public has yet to see a single piece of concrete evidence produced by U.S. intelligence – no satellite imagery, no transcripts of Syrian military communications – connecting the government of President Bashar Assad to the alleged chemical weapons attack last month that killed hundreds of people.

Excerpt 2:

“Some experts think the size of the strike, and the amount of toxic chemicals that appear to have been delivered, make it doubtful that the rebels could have carried it out. What’s missing from the public record is direct proof, rather than circumstantial evidence, tying this to the regime.”

Excerpt 3:

“We can’t get our heads around this – why would any commander agree to rocketing a suburb of Damascus with chemical weapons for only a very short-term tactical gain for what is a long-term disaster,” said Charles Heyman, a former British military officer who edits The Armed Forces of the U.K., an authoritative bi-annual review of British forces.

Excerpt 4:

Multiple U.S. officials have told AP that the intelligence tying Assad himself to the Aug. 21 attack was “not a slam dunk” – a reference to then-CIA Director George Tenet’s insistence in 2002 that U.S. intelligence showed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction – intelligence that turned out to be wrong. They cite the lack of a direct link between Assad and the chemical assault – a question the administration discounts by arguing Assad’s responsibility as Syria’s commander in chief. A second issue is that U.S. intelligence has lost track of some chemical weaponry, leaving a slim possibility that rebels acquired some of the deadly substances.

White House delays Syria air strikes

The U.S. White House is delaying the start of Western air strikes on Syria until the British parliament can vote on it during a special session this week, but it has no plans of asking for a special session of the U.S. Congress. So if I understand this correctly, major policy decisions affecting America get a vote in the British parliament but not here at home? Didn’t we stop that with the American Revolution?

Turkey: Unconvincing reasons to riot

I’m sympathetic to the fact that protesters in Turkey got a ridiculously abusive reaction, and I accept that Erdogan is an arrogant jerk.

But if police brutality, consolidation of electoral power by a conservative religiously-oriented party, and attempts to restrict access to abortion were grounds for forcing out or overthrowing a democratically-elected government through non-election means, then we would all be marching on Republican-led state capitols & DC in the United States today.

Plus, restricting the sale of alcohol is par for the course in the U.S. democracy even to present day so that’s also not a real reason to throw a riot.