Declaring War: Do People Not Know How to Read the Constitution?

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Ms. Rosen is an editorial writer and columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and former professor of history at U.C. Davis.

Once, I was a history professor. For a quarter of a century, I taught American history to thousands of undergraduates. Regardless of the subject matter, I was passionate about helping my students appreciate the unmatched brilliance of the U.S. Constitution.

Some students, aware of my lifelong devotion to civil rights and feminist causes, wondered why I seemed so uncritical of a document that enshrined slavery and denied women citizenship. Still others, who knew nothing about me, sneered at my"naive and patriotic" attachment to what one student described as"a bunch of old papers."

I'd explain that our Constitution -- despite our nation's frequent violations of its ideals -- established the principles by which we ended slavery and granted women suffrage. I'd remind them that the Constitution guarantees civil rights and liberties that deserve our defense and dedication. Some students would get it; others would fuss with their cell phones.

Now it turns out that many other historians feel the same as I do. Tuesday, Sept. 17, is Constitution Day, an obscure holiday that is rarely celebrated. This year, it will get noticed. A delegation of American historians will present members of Congress with a petition reminding them of their constitutional duty to debate and vote on whether or not to declare war on Iraq.

Organized just weeks ago by Joyce Appleby and Ellen Carol DuBois, two UCLA history professors, the petition drive received an enthusiastic and overwhelming response from historians across the political spectrum. So far, 1, 221 American historians from 50 states have signed the 131-word petition, which will be presented at noon on Capitol Hill.

Joyce Appleby, past president of both of the country's two major historical associations, wants President Bush -- as well as the American people -- to know that it is not sufficient that he" consult" with Congress."The power to declare war," she points out,"rests with Congress, not the executive. Nor can Congress evade its grave responsibility to vote on declaring war by holding hearings and passing resolutions."

Many Americans, alas, have never read the Constitution. If they had, they would realize that our founding fathers, above all, feared the tyranny of concentrated power. So they came up with the brilliant solution of balancing the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. In Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution, for example, the founders specifically balanced the president's power as commander-in-chief with Congress's responsibility to declare war.

"We believe it is particularly urgent," reads the historians' petition,"that Congress reassert its authority at this time since an attack on Iraq, if made, would be an American initiative. Since there was no discussion of Iraq during the 2000 presidential campaign, the election of George W. Bush cannot be claimed as a mandate for an attack. Only a debate by Americans' elected representatives can engage the public in a serious consideration of the costs, risks and wisdom of such a war. At the very time that people around the world are restive under despotic governments, we should be showing how a democracy works."

Many Americans apparently do not remember who has the power to declare war."It is striking," Appleby told me,"that after a half century of the Cold War's covert operations and proxy wars that few remember that the Constitution unequivocally gives the war-making powers to Congress."

It's not that this country never declares war. But ever since the end of World War II, we've only declared war on intractable social problems such as poverty and drugs, not when actual military force is used.

Americans are justly famous for their historical amnesia. We are a nation of immigrants, focused on the future, infatuated with the next new thing. But we ignore our cherished political traditions at our peril.

Perhaps, as Appleby suggests, it will take" citizens and citizen-historians,

with their cultivated memory of American traditions, to bring the nation back to the rules that have given democracy its strength and stability." If so, let's hope the president and Congress are listening.

This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and is reprinted with permission.

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Gus Moner - 9/22/2002

I agree with Mr. Obrien and disagree with Mr. Lloyd. Going to war is the most serious of political decisions, indeed, as he has probably read Claustewitz, he ought to know it’s diplomacy’s last move. I believe violence is the last weapon of the inept.

The victims will suffer dramatic destruction of property and infrastructure, as well as life and limb. We simply cannot go to war on assumptions. That’s why it’s a good idea to have UN inspections to determine the level of threat. Armed with that information, the UN can then determine the next course of action. Be mindful that the US has no legal role to play unless the UN calls for military action. The US cannot be the judge and jury of a nation and its people. That role is reserved for God. Here on Earth, in the absence of a final judgement and to get around the trick y business of playing God, the US and other WWII victors have set up the UN to tackle these issues collectively.

In the meantime, remember that democracies bare the details and debate the issues publicly. This secrecy hogwash is getting to many people, myself included. War is so serious an affair that it cannot be decide in secret, for behind closed doors dies democracy, the very value we pretend to be defending.

Enough of the hypocritical, autocratic and fascist behaviour by the Bush team, who 14 years after Iraq used poison gas with US assent (the US supplied vital military liaison before, during and after to the Iraqi army while Iran was the whipping boy, remember?), is now suddenly all hot and bothered that Iraq gasses its own people. They are after better control of the oil and are using the War on Terror cover to do it. It’s no coincidence the number of oilmen in power positions in the Bush team.

There are plenty of al Qaeda targets to go after in places we know they are, yet nothing is being done in Afghanistan save sit on our arses in costly, isolated compounds. Besides, Afghanistan was promised reconstruction aid, and it is not coming. Even humanitarian aid is drying up, with winter coming and 2 million returnee refugees without water, seed, and irrigation for crops. Roads and shelter are severely damaged. More violence is surfacing there every day. We haven’t solved that mess, and we are out raising hell elsewhere already, unwilling to present anything resembling proof. We are just rehashing old allegations.

If Mr. Bush II wants to avenge the attempt on Daddy, that’s fine, but do it one on one. If every leader the US had tried to assassinate had been justified in attacking the US for it, we’d have been in permanent war the last 57 years. I cannot believe how freely the Vietnam War dodging Bush and Cheney are now deploying US forces in the line of fire. It’s one thing to go after the gang that attacked your nation. Quite another to attack a nation in case they were getting ready to attack you! None of my children will I give for this ridiculous, illegal adventure.

We have not got any convincing evidence yet of an Iraqi WMD threat to the USA. The bin Laden followers are not keen on the Iraqi Baath regime that allows a multi-confessional society to exist with laic laws. There is NO evidence that they are aiding these ruffians. Make the details publicly, let the Congress perform its function to declare war or not. Neither Bush nor any other President has that power under the constitution. Remember the disaster that befell the USA after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. There ought not be any repetition of such a broad power handout to the Imperial President trying out 21st century imperialism.

Where is the dossier from Blair? Where is the evidence? If being in violation of UN sanctions is cause for war, where is the threat to attack Israel for its violations? If UN sanctions are important enough to go to war for, why disparage the UN’s role? Hypocritical double standard this is.

There are more al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan and Iran than in Iraq. Use the resources there. If and when credible evidence of an Iraqi threat exists, let the UN deal with it.

Robert Harbison - 9/20/2002

Oh, it doesn't really support anything he is saying. He is just blowing wind and trying to sound like he knows something.

All he is doing is trying to get a reaction out of the people here. It is called negative attention by the child psychologists.

Alec Lloyd - 9/19/2002

You are mistaken. The Bush administration has made it clear that there is solid evidence supporting Iraqi complicity and involvement with al-Qaeda. Indeed, the Blair government is shortly going to release a dossier to this effect. At no point has the Bush administration retracted or backed off this assertion.

What it has done is bring up additional reasons for action. Because of the sensitive nature of the information, a debate on “how complicit is Iraq” is a difficult one to make publicly. No matter how much information is shared in private, the Surrender Lobby can continue its mantra that “there simply isn’t enough proof.” Witness Reuters news service, which after more than a year of revelations, including admissions by al-Qaeda’s OWN leadership that it was responsible for the 9/11 attackst, STILL feels it necessary to couch every article in terms of uncertainty: “al-Qaeda, blamed by the United States for the attacks...”

Against such monumental blindness, only the simplest of arguments are of any use. That Iraq is an aggressor state possessing weapons of mass murder is to irrefutable even for Reuters (or the Surrender Lobby) to dispute.

The movement to get an additional resolution on Iraq is a practical political maneuver, not a legal necessity.

Chris O'Brien - 9/19/2002

I have to admit that I don't understand how the text you cite supports your position. Here, it seems to me, is the most important clause:

From Sec. 2. “(a) IN GENERAL.-That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons *HE determines planned, authorized, committed, *OR HARBORED such organizations or persons, in order to *PREVENT ANY FUTURE ACTS of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons. (emphasis yours)

It seems that this resolution is limited to action against those actors that were complicit in the 9/11 attack. The administration is not maintaining that Iraq was one of those actors, instead it claims that Hussein is an ongoing threat due to his quest for WMD. Unless operating on specific evidence that Iraq "authorized, committed, or harbored" Al Queda operatives or others involved in the September tragedy, Bush's determination that Hussein is a world-wide nuisance does not seem to be covered by this resolution. As Dick Armey and other Republican leaders have indicated, at a minimum, additional consultation with Congress is in order. As I write, the Bush administration seems to have adopted the same position since their Authorization of Force resolution is on its way to Capitol Hill.

Alec Lloyd - 9/16/2002

So now more than 1,200 historians are unable (or unwilling) to read the text of SJR 23, a joint resolution “To authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched upon the United States.”

I grow tired of retyping this text, but maybe one of those 1,200 esteemed historians will read it, since Congress’ web page is perhaps too difficult for them to navigate.

From Sec. 2. “(a) IN GENERAL.-That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons *HE determines planned, authorized, committed, *OR HARBORED such organizations or persons, in order to *PREVENT ANY FUTURE ACTS of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
(1) SPECIFIC STATUTORY AUTHORIZATION.-Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.” [*emphasis added]

So there you have it. Congress voted, authorized the use of force, decided that the President and the President alone could determine who, where and how it could be used and now we have to do it all over again because apparently that text is just a little too opaque.

This is fine. Personally, I like the idea of our elected representatives going on record with yet another vote, but do keep in mind that is it just this: ANOTHER vote, no more than a political move (in every sense) than a legality required by the Constitution.

Indeed, the Constitution is silent upon what form a declaration of war must take and if one must have such a declaration for a state of war to legally exist. Would that 1,200 scholars could remain silent as well.

mark safranski - 9/16/2002

While it might be politically smart for Mr. Bush to go to Congress yet again for a second authorization of force, to argue as the author has is to take the position that for the better part of the last year we were not at war. That would be news to Mullah Omar I believe.

Congress has declared war already in their 9/11 resolution and used amazingly broad language in order to give Mr. Bush the widest possible discretion. I would agree that the administration has done an uneven job tying together multiple, interdependent threats - Rogue states, Radical Islamism, WMD proliferation and international terrorism - into a neat sound bite but lack of articulation or a catchy slogan does not mean that the threat does not exist. Indeed, it is extremely grave in character.

Opponents of the war - and that is really what this petition is about, a tactical manuver to provide additional delay on the slim hope that SOMETHING will happen in the interim that will allow Saddam's anti-US regime to survive - will get their wish in short order. The Congress will vote, probably overwhelmingly, to go to war, possibly much sooner than we expect.