I started out to write a letter to the editor, and (you know me!) went on way too long. But here’s a first draft, submitted for your correction and comments. I’ll do a podcast version and maybe tidy it up and whittle it down for the newspaper letter editors later this afternoon.
As I write this, Congress is debating the President’s proposed troop escalation. And pundits are debating whether attempting to stop escalation is politically smart. But there are larger issues here than politics or even the war itself. The debate over escalation in Iraq is also a debate over the integrity of our Constitution and the system of government that has sustained this nation for 218 years.
Even a sloppy reading of American history should tell us that the Founding Fathers never intended one man, even one with a title so lofty as Commander-in-Chief, to have the power to deploy the military any way he wants for as long as he wants at his own discretion.
History had provided many examples of one man with control of an army seizing dictatorial powers. For this reason, the authors of the Constitution divided authority over war and the military between Congress and the President. Consider that an early draft of Section 8 gave Congress the authority “to make war,” not just to declare war. The change was made to allow the President some leeway to act quickly without congressional debate when enemy troops are landing on our shores. It was not intended to strip Congress of all but a ceremonial role in approving the President’s war plans.
Most of the authors of the Constitution were loathe even to maintain a standing army. For that reason, the Founding Fathers decided to keep only a minimal federal force and primarily rely on state militias for the nation’s defense (Article I, Section 8, clauses 15 and 16). The militias were to be under the command of the several state governors until called into federal service (with a governor’s permission) by Congress and the President, which further divided control of the military between the state and federal governments.
The original militia system proved inadequate for the nation’s defense, and in the 20th century the state militias became today’s National Guard. But the National Guard was never intended to be the President’s personal plaything, and the citizen soldiers of the Guard cannot – must not — be kept in a foreign war merely at the President’s pleasure.
It was not until the Cold War that the United States chose to maintain a formidable federal military at all times, war or no. Our military might requires more, not less, vigilance that the nation’s war powers not fall into the hands of just one man.
President George W. Bush has embraced a controversial theory called the “unitary executive” to justify his increasingly autocratic powers. In issues from warrantless surveillance to stripping a citizen of the right of habeas corpus at his discretion, President Bush has pushed the powers of the presidency far beyond what any President has assumed before. And this includes wartime presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
President Bush justifies these powers by evoking the threat of terrorism. I was in lower Manhattan on September 11, and I have seen the worst that terrorism can do with my own eyes. I know that terrorism destroys precious lives, landmarks, and vital infrastructure.
But terrorists cannot destroy the United States. Terrorists cannot occupy our territory and force us to abandon our political institutions to despotism. Only we can do that.
Today many television and newspaper pundits warn our senators and representatives that trying to stop the escalation is politically risky. Why stopping the unpopular acts of an unpopular President should be politically risky isn’t clear to me, but we are told it is. Today the men and women we elected to represent us struggle to find the courage to enact the will of We, the People. Instead, they tiptoe about in fear of the White House and will not use the power the Constitution gives them. The system of checks and balances has withered away, and a single secretive, autocratic man who has shown us little else but bumbling incompetence and moral cowardice for the past six years rules the nation like Caesar. How did we come to this?
I ask our senators and congresspersons to please look beyond their personal ambitions and whatever heat they might take from the President’s apologists. Instead, please think of the nation. Think of the soldiers whose lives are forfeit to President Bush’s stubborn refusal to face reality. And think of preserving the Constitution and the integrity of the separation of powers for generations to come.