The Obama administration asserts that presidents of the United States have the power to wage endless war anywhere in the world without permission or hindrance from Congress.
This claim is reiterates the position of the Bush administration, which was most strongly pushed by Bush’s vice-president Dick Cheney. It is another example of the seamless transition from Bush to Obama in foreign affairs.
The Obama administration's assertion was made during a Senate hearing on May 16. It revisited the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) enacted by Congress just days after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Only Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, raised any concern at the hearing.
“This is the most astounding and most astoundingly disturbing hearing that I’ve been to since I’ve been [in the Senate],” King said. “You guys have essentially rewritten the Constitution here today.”
One could think that would at least deserve major coverage in the capitalist press. But where it was mentioned, it was buried. It was hardly noticed by the population at large.
All this came out in questioning of Pentagon officials. Those questioned included Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense in charge of special operations; Robert Taylor, acting general counsel for the Department of Defense; Brigadier General Richard Gross; and General Michael Nagata.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham questioned them. The transcript reads:
Graham: Do you agree with me, the war against radical Islam, or terror, whatever description you like to provide, will go on after the second term of President Obama?
Sheehan: Senator, in my judgment, this is going to go on for quite a while, and, yes, beyond the second term of the president.
Graham: And beyond this term of Congress?
Sheehan: Yes, sir. I think at least 10 to 20 years.
Graham: So from your point of view, you have all of the authorization and legal authorities necessary to conduct a drone strike against terrorist organizations in Yemen without changing the AUMF.
Sheehan: Yes, sir, I do believe that.
Graham: You agree with that, General?
Gross: I do, sir.
Graham: General, do you agree with that?
Nagata: I do, sir.
Graham: OK. Could we send military members into Yemen to strike against one of these organizations? Does the president have the authority to put boots on the ground in Yemen?
Taylor: As I mentioned before, there’s domestic authority and international law authority. At the moment the basis for putting boots on the ground in Yemen, we respect the sovereignty of Yemen and it would –
Graham: I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about: Does he have the legal authority under our law to do that?
Taylor: Under domestic authority, he would have that authority.
Graham: I hope that Congress is OK with that. I’m OK with that. Does he have authority to put boots on the ground in the Congo?
Sheehan: Yes sir, he does.
Graham: Do you agree with me that when it comes to international terrorism, we’re talking about a worldwide struggle?
Sheehan: Absolutely, sir.
Graham: Would you agree with me the battlefield is wherever the enemy chooses to make it?
Sheehan: Yes, sir, from Boston to the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan, along the Afghan border].
Graham: I couldn’t agree with you more. Do you agree with that, General?
Gross: yes, sir. I agree that the enemy decides where the battlefield is.
Graham: And it could be any place on the planet, and we have to be aware and able to act. And do you have the ability to act, and are you aware of the threats?
Sheehan: Yes, sir. We do have the ability to react, and we are tracking threats globally.
There are two things to note. When the Defense Department lawyer tried to raise the sovereignty of other nations, he was told to shut up. The other is the reference to Boston as a battlefield.
The Democrats on the panel rushed to agree with Graham after King raised his objections.
King correctly said the AUMF only referred to Al Qaeda as a target. But clearly the “war on terror” has gone way beyond that to include any other person or group the government declares is “terrorist”.
King said, “you are reading [the AUMF] to cover everything and anything”. The Pentagon officials and Democratic and Republican senators clearly endorse an expansive (indeed global) view of what the AUMF authorises.
King also said: “The Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11, clearly states that Congress has the power to declare war.”
The last time Congress declared war was World War II. At the time, the Department of Defense was known as the Department of War. It was changed after the US and Britain launched the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
Except for a brief period after World War II, when there was a huge revolt of US soldiers against plans to continue the war in Asia by invading China, the US has been engaging in acts of war ever since.
These include trade sanctions and blockades, as well as open military conflict. The Cold War featured permanent threats of atomic annihilation.
None of these wars were declared by Congress. Instead, Congress passed vague “enabling” resolutions, after the fact, to endorse wars launched by the executive branch.
The US invasion of Korea was not even called a war. It was labelled a United Nations “police action”.
The US was involved in France’s war against Vietnam in one form or another from 1945. Congress never declared war against Vietnam, but did pass an “enabling” resolution at President Lyndon Johnson’s demand.
Called the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, it referred to a supposed attack on US warships off Vietnam's shores ― later revealed to have never happened.
When the US under President John F Kennedy organised the invasion of Cuba by Cuban counterrevolutionaries living in Miami, there was no Congressional declaration of war. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US came within a hair’s breadth of launching an atomic attack on the Soviet Union without a Congressional declaration of war.
The wars against Nicaragua and El Salvador under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s used proxy troops trained, armed and organised by Washington. But this was not the result of a Congressional declaration of war.
In fact, Congress passed a resolution to stop the funding of these wars, but Reagan simply circumvented it.
The first Gulf war against Iraq was not declared either, but done under UN auspices. The attack on Somalia and Serbia by President Bill Clinton found other fig leaves.
The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the bombing of Libya, the special forces attacks in Pakistan, the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen these all come under the AUMF, broadly interpreted.
In any case, the US no longer officially wages “war”, it wages “defence”.
This usurpation of power by the executive branch at the expense of Congress and the constitution is part of a broader phenomenon since the rise of modern capitalist imperialism in the late 19th century.
The power of the executive in the imperialist countries has mushroomed along with the huge increase in the armed forces of the state. This was glaring in the fascist regimes, but was evident in the imperialist democracies, too.
This is crystal clear in the huge US military machine. This is shown by the nearly 1000 US bases spread around the world, its huge nuclear arsenal on a hair-trigger, and in the absolute military power concentrated in the executive branch. “Congressional oversight” is reduced to a joke.
[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]