Unconstitutional Wars, Unintended Results

Originally posted at the Tenth Amendment Center

Last week President Obama became the fourth consecutive American president to announce the bombing of Iraq. Obama’s actions dovetail perfectly with American sentiment. According to a recent Washington Post poll, 71% of Americans support bombing the radical insurgents who have overrun Iraq. 65% favor extending the aerial attacks into Syria and 58% support arming the Kurdish forces who are fighting the Islamic State – alternately called ISIS and ISIL – in Iraq. Americans want action and Obama is taking it.

There are two key problems with the current military action, both of which should matter to anyone who claims to care about freedom and humanity. The first problem, and the most obvious, is that bombing Iraq without a congressional declaration of war is an unconstitutional act. Obama’s statement that he has “the authority to address the threat from (ISIS)” is completely wrong.

Let’s review where the Constitution places the authority to declare war. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution plainly states that “Congress shall have the power…to declare war.” It doesn’t say, as Obama did last week, that Congress has the authority to “work together” and “support” the president’s military initiatives. Congress, and Congress alone, has the authority to authorize military action. The framers of the Constitution were absolutely clear on this point.

So where does Obama get the authority to bomb Iraq? Certainly not from the Constitution. It seems that he is relying on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which permitted then-President Bush “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”

This is also unacceptable from a constitutional standpoint. For starters, ISIS is not al-Qaeda, the organization responsible for the September 11 attacks. In fact, there has been public tension between the two groups. If ISIS had no role in the attacks referenced in the AUMF, President Obama cannot constitutionally attack them without further congressional approval.

But more importantly, the AUMF is itself constitutionally dubious. The flexibility that Congress gave to President Bush in 2001 goes well beyond what would have passed for a constitutional declaration of war for the framers. Indeed, the AUMF has been used to defend and propagate the kind of long-term, meandering war that the founding generation specifically sought to avoid.

Remember that it was James Madison who said that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” It is hard to think of a better term for America’s foreign policy since 2001 than “continual warfare.” This state of affairs has had exactly the impact to American liberty that Madison predicted, as the national security state has demanded that Americans increasingly give up their freedoms in order to be kept “safe.”.

But there are more than just the constitutional ramifications of renewed action in Iraq. Americans who are so gung-ho about bombing this new enemy must not spend very much time thinking about how that enemy came into being in the first place or how it got the opportunity to wreak the havoc it has. If they did they might arrive at the uncomfortable conclusion that American military adventurism is the primary culprit.

To understand why this is true, we must realize that any action of government has consequences. As French economist Frederic Bastiat famously observed, some of these consequences are immediately apparent and some are not. Good policies rely on understanding exactly what will happen if a government takes a specific action.

This is especially true in foreign policy. In his book Wilson’s War, historian Jim Powell observes that when it comes to an interventionist foreign policy, “One never knows how different people might react to intervention, so there are more likely to be unintended consequences. Such a policy requires people with considerable knowledge and the ability to anticipate developments and make sound judgments.”

Powell leaves the question of whether or not such people exist open to debate. But his point is so important that even Dick Cheney once understood it. In an unexpected moment of clarity in 1994, Cheney said of Iraq, “That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off…” Nine years later, Cheney would help to dismantle that very government, even though no discernible stability had been created in the region.

The reality is that by ousting Saddam Hussein’s regime, the United States created an environment where terror groups could flourish. Gone was the tyrant that had maintained order. He has been replaced by a weak government that clearly does not have the same level of control and authority.

The United States has thus directly contributed, unintentionally, to the formation and success of ISIS. As Tom Engelhardt recently wrote onAntiwar.com, “Thirteen years of regional war, occupation, and intervention played a major role in clearing the ground for ISIS. They may be our worst nightmare…but they are also our legacy.”

And yet, American politicians – and a large percentage of their electors – have learned nothing. The main thrust of American foreign policy has been to continue to meddle in other countries’ affairs, supporting rebel fighters one moment, entrenched dictators the next and somehow expressing bewilderment when it all goes awry.

The wisdom of America’s founders about staying out of other countries’ problems goes entirely unheeded today. It would be easy to blame politicians, but the real blame falls on an electorate that sees effects but not causes and gives its government a wide swath of leniency when they think it’s necessary to fight the bad guys.

Meanwhile the Constitution is in tatters, and with it traditional American liberty. More tragically, innocent people in other countries are caught in the avalanche of unintended consequences of America’s foreign policy. It’s time for Americans to break the cycle, to insist on constitutional processes and on a wise foreign policy.

Our own liberties depend on it. So do the lives of innocent foreigners.