Don’t expand the President’s power to make war

By George Clifford

Historically, the Christian tradition has relied – at least in its rhetoric – upon Just War Theory to decide when and how to wage war. The six jus ad bellum criteria (just cause, right authority, right intent, proportionality, last resort, and reasonable chance of success) provide a basis for deciding whether to wage war. The two jus in bello criteria (proportionality and non-combatant immunity) guide how a nation wages a just war.

The United States Constitution assigns Congress the power to declare war, i.e., Congress constitutes right authority for the U.S. to wage war. Yet in recent years, presidents have often acted unilaterally citing their role as Commander-in-Chief, their duty to defend the nation, and the need for expeditious action to justify bypassing or minimizing Congress’ role. Concurrently, Congress has often failed to exercise due diligence before authorizing the President to go to war.

U.S. involvement in Vietnam exemplifies those problems. By 1964, the Vietnam War was already well underway without Congressional authorization because of decisions made by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Nevertheless, the Vietnam War’s cost in dollars and American lives had reached the point where President Johnson felt he needed authorization from a dubious Congress. Congress’ consideration of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution followed an alleged attack in international waters upon the Navy destroyer, USS MADDOX (DD-731), by North Vietnamese forces, an incident now known to have never happened. Passed after fewer than nine hours of committee and floor debate, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorized the President “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.” Subsequently, both President Johnson and Nixon relied upon the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as the Congressional authority to wage the Vietnam War. Congress’ failure to engage in a full and open debate about whether to wage war contributed to the U.S. continuing a costly, ill-fated war.

Following 9/11, Congress expeditiously passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Resolution on September 14, 2001, empowering the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and to prevent future attacks. That resolution provided the legal basis for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the administration’s adoption of controversial policies such as indefinitely detaining those the government identifies as “illegal enemy combatants.”

Now the Bush administration quietly seeks Congressional authorization for continued armed conflict with al Qaeda and reaffirmation “that for the duration of the conflict the United States may detain as enemy combatants those who have engaged in hostilities or purposefully supported al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated organizations.” Passage of this resolution will confer on President Bush and his successors broad wartime powers. Therefore, the resolution merits thoughtful and open consideration by Congress, citizens, and Christians.

From a Christian perspective, I find the resolution troubling for three reasons. First, Just War Theory emphasizes that going to war should be a last resort. The precedent of the U.S. invading Afghanistan based on wording of a similar resolution now exists. What country might this or a future President choose to invade, based on a new resolution? The draft contains no guidance on criteria to be satisfied before the U.S. invades another country. In other words, the proposed resolution is tantamount to Congress abdicating its war making powers and handing the Commander-in-Chief a blank check to make war if and when the President deems it right. The checks and balances written into the Constitution cohere well with the Christian recognition of pervasive sin. Concentrating power in the hands of one person unnecessarily invites abuses.

Second, the resolution attempts to perpetuate an egregious denial of human rights. Enemy combatants remain persons, something that committing a crime, no matter how heinous, can never change. The Book of Common Prayer’s baptismal covenant reminds us that all persons are worthy of equal dignity and respect, i.e., deserve equal rights and equal treatment. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are entitled to habeas corpus rights to challenge their imprisonment in court. Passage of the proposed resolution would attempt to circumvent that ruling and undercut our moral obligation to respect every human being as one of God’s children.

Third, the proposed resolution tacitly suggests that effective government action can create a secure nation, e.g., allowing the government to wiretap U.S. citizens without a court order will keep the U.S. safe from terrorists. Bruce Fein, a former Justice Department official during the Reagan Presidency, said in comments about the proposed resolution, “I do not believe that we are in a state of war whatsoever. We have an odious opponent that the criminal justice system is able to identify and indict and convict. They’re not a goliath. Don’t treat them that way.”

Any demonizing of al Qaeda and other terrorists dehumanizes the terrorist, creates additional obstacles to ending the terrorist threat, and is a form of fear mongering. Elusive promises of absolute national security are all bogus. Trusting in the government, and especially in military prowess, for one’s security is a highly addictive, extremely dangerous form of idolatry that seduces many Americans. Whether we like it or not, life is inherently risky. Disease, disaster, or destruction strike frequently, e.g., Representative Stephanie Stubbs Jones death from cancer (sadly only one of thousands each year), hurricanes Gustav and Katrina, and the reports of random violence that appear daily in the headlines.

Jesus instructed his disciples to be as wise as serpents. Every person and government prudently acts to prevent criminal behavior, apprehend criminals, and properly adjudicate them. The demands of justice for all, temperately balancing individual liberty and security, and courageously living in the face of real threats all help to define the nature of those prudential actions. Policies that elevate security to a position of preeminence result in a society in which justice is impoverished and fear rules. Democratic governments that have yielded to fear, as happened in ancient Greece and Rome, generally become dictatorships. Democracy, not dictatorship, is the form of government most consonant with Christianity. As Christians, God calls us to live in community, both as people of faith and as citizens of a particular nation. Strengthened by God, seeking justice and liberty for all, and living boldly in the face of an uncertain, often risky, future is one cost of sustaining a democratic government.

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

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