The most significant argument flowing from the adoption of the Constitution was the relationship between the Executive and the Legislative branches of government. Continued suspicion that a President might assume the powers of a King led Jefferson and others to insist that Executive power must not only be carefully defined, but also severely limited. Yet realizing that a President must have leeway in foreign affairs, which included the right to secret negotiations, as Commander in Chief the framers allowed the President the right to keep some matters out of public view. Congress did not have automatic access to everything the Executive did or knew. The one caveat was the right to declare war, which in the Constitution was clearly a Congressional prerogative.
But here’s the rub: what’s a war? If you call sending thousands of troops into Korea “a police action,” which is what President Truman termed it in 1950, does that mean the Korean War was not a war at all, and therefore did not need to be declared so by Congress? Is an air attack on Syria a war? Is the declaration of war restricted to specific language exactly worded? Perhaps the founders meant these matters to be bathed in ambiguity.
The conflict between the two branches of government continues to this day. Here is where it has recently gotten increasingly sticky. President Bush told the American people that we are now in a global war against terror. It has included ten years of battlefield action in Iraq and Afghanistan with thousands of troops killed and trillions of tax dollars expended. But is this a real war? Congress has never declared it as such. And if it is not a real war, what is it? It is one thing for a President to act quickly to meet foreign aggression without Congress being directly involved. The courts have allowed it, and there are numerous examples throughout American history. But is it quite another thing to plunge the nation into what promises to be a century-long series of military actions without the people — by Congress — declaring war.
On its own, can the Executive branch of government, in pursuit of this global war on terror, conduct covert activities in a dozen nations, send drones to bomb targets only it has identified, directly participate in the overthrow of foreign rulers even to the point of assassination, maintain black — that is unreported — prisons around the world, engaged in torture, offer billions in military aid without Congress appropriating it? Or do we really have two governments, one which is out in the open — of, by and for the people — and a second which is hidden, whose activities are all classified, and whose operations are even kept from the American people?
Given the deplorable state of Congress these days, I have to swallow hard to come down on that side of the Constitutional debate, but the ill-defined and undeclared global war on terror strikes at the heart of the Constitution. Congress is unable to act, since both political parties are bought and paid for by the same handful of major American corporations. These same corporations, and the members of Congress in whose districts these powerhouses are substantial parts of the local economy, dare not allow any questions about the billions, which flow, from Washington.
Taking the country back is a much larger issue than what party gets elected or who is in the White House. Almost every large corporation in the nation, backed up by massive teams of lobbyists — many of them ex-elected politicians or their staffs — share in the booty generated by the military-industrial-political complex. As long as that wealth rules Washington, the ballot box seems almost useless.
If we are really at war with a worldwide ideology, not a nation or nations, by what mechanism do we, the people, have any voice in framing that decision? Or is this the sort of problem the nation’s founders never contemplated?