As President Obama begins to sell Congress and the American people on his plan for a time-limited U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan, genuine military and national security experts, flanked by prime-time pundits posing as experts, will parse and debate the commitment.
While we all (I hope) do our best to tune in the former and tune out the latter, we also need to recognize that the 44th commander in chief’s first major war-making decision raises two overarching sets of questions, one constitutional, the other Catholic.
The cardinal constitutional question concerns the president’s authority to commit blood and treasure to combat abroad without a formal declaration of war by the Congress. Of course Congress has not declared war since it passed six separate war declarations (Japan, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania) in the 1940s. Instead, since the Korean “police action,” Congress has issued eight “resolutions” broadly authorizing U.S. military actions abroad, including one in 1964 regarding Vietnam and one in 2001 regarding Afghanistan.
I am more hawk than dove, and I accept President Obama’s case for upping the military ante in Afghanistan. But being constitutionally nonchalant about making war is a post-1945 presidential habit that he ought to break, not repeat.
As events in Vietnam (1964–75) demonstrated, an undeclared war can become a quagmire and stretch by presidential prerogative into ad hoc military actions (invasions, espionage, bombings) against nearby noncombatant peoples and nations.
As both Afghanistan (2001 and 2009–?) and Iraq (1991–92 and 2002–?) have shown, one round of military action against unspecified enemies, waged without well-defined strategic or tactical objectives, often leads to another undeclared war.
Since World War II, presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, have invoked “national security” to justify warring in places (President Bill Clinton’s congressionally unauthorized actions in Yugoslavia in 1999) or in ways (President George W. Bush’s nods to torture-type interrogation methods after 9/11) that overstep their authority and violate constitutional or human rights.
The National Security Act of 1947 established the Department of Defense in conjunction with the Truman Doctrine and a bipartisan “containment policy” centered on Soviet- or Chinese-backed Com-munism. But nothing in that act or in the subsequent amendments to it, and nothing in controlling Supreme Court decisions dating back to the Youngstown case in 1952 (the famous judicial rebuke to President Harry S. Truman’s claim that he had the authority to seize steel mills for “national security” reasons), authorizes a president to wage war per the so-called Bush Doctrine.
As articulated in the “National Security Strategy” proposal submitted to Congress on Sept. 20, 2002, and in related 2002–8 presidential documents and speeches, the Bush Doctrine holds that because post-9/11 America is “vulnerable to terrorism of catastrophic proportions,” and because the global “war against terror” and the need for ever-expanding “homeland security” is a “permanent condition,” the president is authorized to use military and other resources largely at his discretion, including use in pre-emptive major military or other actions against foreign groups and nations that he believes threaten the United States.
President Obama will never say so, but thus far on Afghani-stan he is retracing the Bush Doctrine, not only strategically, which might or might not be defensible, but also constitutionally, which crosses this dangerous presidential-powers Rubicon for a second time and gives it bipartisan legitimacy.
Furthermore, declared and duly constitutional or not, is this likely to prove a just war? That, of course, is the cardinal Catholic question here.
In broad outline, to be just, a war must be waged to stop the lasting, grave and certain damage being done by the aggressor (here the Taliban and its allies); and there must be no other practical or effective means to stop the damage, a serious prospect of success in stopping it and a prudent hope that the killing in order to stop killing will not beget even greater evils.
I trust President Obama to wage a tolerably just, if barely constitutional, war in Afghanistan.