James Madison, “The Father of the Constitution,” wrote: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Enabling governments to “control the governed” has always been easy, as tyranny has long been mankind’s default position: Virtually every regime in history has sought to increase its power. Obliging government to “control itself” has always been the hard part, and nations that value freedom have always tried to place limits on their rulers in recognition of the fact that governors are not always angels.
Most Americans, from the Founding Fathers to the current generation, would likely agree that decisions to wage war are probably the most important decisions our federal government makes. Madison noted that it was a fairly universal truth that the more powerful a government’s leaders, the more interest there will be in going to war. “The Constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it,” Madison wrote. “[The Constitution] has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.”
Last week, Senator Jim DeMint studied the question of the nine-year-long Iraq War, and decided to end it. I don’t mean “end” the Iraq War in merely the sense that President Obama now advertises — bringing the troops home, ending hostilities, etc. Hell, President Obama starts and ends wars all the time (see: Libya) without even the pretension of seeking legal authority. Sen. DeMint’s support was for something much different and more significant: He voted to end the Iraq War by demanding that the president no longer be able to legally wage it.
The United States hasn’t officially declared war since World War II. Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan — none of these were “wars” officially, though the men and women who fought in them might beg to differ. President Bush took us to war with Iraq in 2003 in the same extra-constitutional manner: He went to Congress to get “authorization,” but still both Congress and the president apparently thought that the Iraq War wasn’t important enough to merit an official declaration of war, as the Constitution demands.
When Senator Rand Paul offered an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act last month that would revoke the authorization given to Bush in 2003 regarding Iraq, only three Republican senators joined him: DeMint, Dean Heller of Nevada and moderate Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine. There were plenty of Democrats who voted for Paul’s amendment. Of course, there were plenty of Democrats who were against the Iraq War from the beginning, though they were probably not motivated by limited-government considerations.
Sen. DeMint supported the Iraq War. Most Republicans did. Conservatives can now debate whether that support, in retrospect, was justified. But Sen. Paul’s amendment was a debate over whether the Iraq War is still justified today. Paul’s amendment was also a debate over whether giving the president of the United States carte blanche in Iraq is still justified. Only four Republicans said “no.”
It is DeMint’s vote that is the most instructive. Sen. Paul is a tea party champion who has always been upfront about his opposition to the Iraq War. While her vote was commendable, Sen. Snowe is not exactly a guiding light for most Republicans. Sen. Heller probably has the lowest profile of the four. But Sen. DeMint is a conservative’s conservative. The right has long followed DeMint’s lead on most issues. Conservatives need to follow it on Iraq and executive power too.
If the Republican Party has any interest in limited government or the Constitution, the president’s authority to wage war in Iraq must eventually be revoked. As it stands now, this president and any future president will have the power to do whatever he likes militarily in Iraq without so much as consulting Congress. Many Republican members of Congress were rightly miffed that President Obama did not consult them before his recent military action in Libya. As it stands, Congress now gives any president free rein to do the same in Iraq. Forever.
For conservatives to dismiss war and foreign policy as the one area where presidents should have unlimited power is to dismiss the very purpose of our Constitution’s system of checks and balances. As Madison recognized, the president should not be entrusted with the power to act unilaterally, especially when it comes to war.
Americans must choose between Madison’s understanding of executive power and Obama’s. Last month, Sen. Jim DeMint chose Madison’s. His fellow conservatives must eventually choose too.
Jack Hunter writes at the “Paulitical Ticker,” where he is the official Ron Paul 2012 campaign blogger.