Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Was Kerry’s defeat really a defeat for the anti-war movement?

Was John Kerry’s defeat in the last election really a triumph for the war party and a vindication for the President’s invasion of Iraq? Or were other issues paramount in the minds of the electorate? The pollsters are already out with data that shows that “values” was the most important issue on which voters made their choice. But what the heck are those values ?

Did the decision to go to war conform to those values? Certainly, the media coverage was centered on the war in Iraq. And that wasn’t some sort of a media conspiracy. Whenever the issue of a prescription drug benefit or medical liability limitations, or even gun control was discussed, there seemed to be a collective yawn from the audience. The one topic that seemed to captivate the electorate was the war in Iraq, which does seem to be a reasonable priority, regardless of one's position on the matter. The question of War or Peace does seem to be a weighty issue.

But based on this, was the defeat of John Kerry really a victory of the war party over the anti-war movement? Or should the 51% -48% split of the popular vote be interpreted as the close result from a society which is troubled, if not sharply divided on the war, and did not have a clear choice between candidates?

Was there really any difference between the candidates on the issue? After all, one candidate (Bush) started the war, and the other candidate (Kerry) voted to authorize it. The Kerry campaign made a real effort to appeal to the sizable chunk of the American populace who were opposed to the war (or at any rate thought that it may have been a mistake), but was their message too nuanced? Were the American people unable to understand (or depending on one’s point of view - was the Kerry campaign unable to explain) his position?

Some Kerry supporters like Madeline Albright tried to explain his position (albeit not very well) and put forth the argument that John Kerry’s vote for the authorization of the use of force, was not really the same thing as voting for the use of force itself. Although Kerry never disavowed his vote for the authorization, he did criticize the president for “rushing to war”.

On its face, this argument whereby the President should be held accountable for the war, but those who, like Kerry, voted to authorize it should not, sounds totally self-serving - as do most arguments made by politicians during an election season. But the subtleties of this position should nevertheless be examined.

The argument is partially based on the constitutional conundrum created by the American founding fathers, whereby the Congress has the authority to declare war, but the President is the commander in chief of the armed forces.

Because of this situation, a simple declaration of war is somewhat problematic. What would happen if the congress declared a war to which the president was opposed? In the 1890’s, in the period just before the Spanish-American War, President Grover Cleveland warned the Congress that if they declared war he wouldn’t send an army to fight. This division between the branches of government could have resulted in disaster. Conceivably, the refusal to attack on the part of a peacefully inclined president, combined with a provocative declaration of war on the part of a belligerent congress could have resulted in an attack on the United States.

Of course, Americans become indignant at the idea of discussing under what circumstances an attack against us would be "justified". But one should be able to look at things from a different perspective. One should also remember that the US entered the war against Nazi Germany, (and bombed the living daylights out of them) not because of an attack on the US, but because Hitler inexplicably issued a declaration of war on us (even though he had no feasible plan for actually attacking us). The point being that a declaration of war establishes a state of belligerency, and once that state exists, one shouldn't be surprised at the idea of the other side acting in a manner which befits that circumstance. After all, war is usually a two way street, and so it is reasonable to argue that to declare war is to invite an attack.

Therefore, although the congress might have the authority to declare war, to do so without a president who actually plans to pursue it, would be the height of irresponsibility, and could result in disaster.

Alternatively, if the situation were reversed, a similarly disastrous result could have ensued.

In 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the elder President Bush committed his administration to UN Security Council resolution 678 , which authorized “Member States co-operating with the Government of Kuwait… to use all necessary means” to evict the Iraqis, if they refused to withdraw by Jan 15, 1991. The Bush administration then requested that Congress pass a resolution authorizing him, as commander in chief, to use the US military to enforce this demand.

There is a very good argument that the President's ultimatum combined with the passage of the congressional authorization for it, was the preferred method to achieve the legitimate goal of liberating Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation (possibly without having to resort to force).

As all reasonable people would agree, sometimes, the only way to deter or defend against aggression is to threaten the use of force, and the actions taken by the US followed this principle. The ultimatum, and the supporting authorization from congress, were being used to threaten war, if and only if Saddam Hussein did not withdraw from Kuwait, or to force him to withdraw if he refused.

Furthermore, by passing the resolution authorizing (but not requiring) the use of force under specific circumstances, the legislative branch had acted prudently, by not creating a premature state of belligerency and in a manner consistent with their constitutional mandate. At the same time congress placed a specific limitation on the authority of the President, while allowing him the latitude to choose the most propitious time and place for military action, if necessary.

Based on this formulation, if the Iraqis had complied with the demands in resolution 678, the President would not have been in any way required to wage war, nor would a state of belligerency have automatically come into effect. Furthermore, the authorization only gave the elder President Bush authority to enforce UN resolution 678, which in turn only allowed the use of “all necessary means” if Iraq refused to withdraw. Consequently, the Iraqis could see that the authorization, coupled with President Bush’s (conditional) threat, left them with a clear choice – withdraw from Kuwait, or else…

If, however, a majority of congress had voted (ironically, along with Senator Kerry on that occasion) against the authorization, Saddam Hussein would have known that the US would be facing a constitutional crisis, if the President had tried to enforce the ultimatum. The refusal to pass such a resolution might have emboldened the Iraqis to maintain their occupation precisely because they knew that the threat of force was a somewhat hollow one. In such a case, the refusal to authorize force might have conceivably made the actual use of force necessary.

Consequently, there is a fundamental need for unity of purpose between the legislative and the executive branches of government, in questions of war and peace.

Of course, Saddam Hussein refused to comply even though Congress had signed off on the ultimatum, and so the US took military action to force him to withdraw from Kuwait. Hence, this becomes something of an academic point. Nevertheless, it provides an excellent illustration of the need for a united front when confronting a foreign menace, as well as the need for each branch of government to act in a manner, which is consistent with its constitutional mandate.

The opposite side of this same principle is that if Saddam Hussein had voluntarily withdrawn from Kuwait (which, of course, he didn’t), and the elder President Bush had launched the military operation anyway, simply because he wanted to destroy Iraq's capacity to threaten her neighbors, or because he thought that Saddam should be punished for his prior actions, etc., then the elder Bush could have (and probably would have) been accused of exceeding his authority.

This principle forms the basis of Mr. Kerry’s explanation of his vote. According to the Washington Post

Bush challenged Kerry to answer whether he would support the war "knowing what we know now" about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction that U.S. and British officials were certain were there.

In response, Kerry said: "Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have."

Unfortunately, the claim of Kerry supporters, that the vote for the Authorization for Military Force of 2002; wasn’t really a vote for war itself, doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

Since the authorization wasn’t in the form of an ultimatum, it can’t really be logically argued that it was merely a vote to threaten war, in order to achieve a specific aim (preferably without the need to resort to force).

The authorization for Military Force of 2002 was not an act of brinksmanship., and so the claim that Kerry only authorized the step up to the brink, but Mr. Bush is the one who stepped beyond it, doesn't really stand up.

Although it made preambulary references to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and the absence of inspectors, the resolution of 2002 did not say that the president is authorized to use force in order to enforce a demand to allow weapons inspectors in, or to allow force if and only if Iraq maintains WMD, or any such thing. The authorization simply declares Iraq to be a “threat” and authorized the President

“to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to-“,

among other things,

“defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq;”

In this regard, Kerry’s claim, that he isn’t flip-flopping when he says that this is ,”the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time” in spite of the fact that he voted for it, is completely ridiculous.

It is like a man writing a blank check, and then complaining that the person who cashed it shouldn’t have done so, or wrote in the wrong amount. If it isn’t a flip-flop (i.e. a change in his position), it is worse. It is a shameless attempt to take credit for authorizing the war - when seeking the votes of those who favored it, and disavowing his own responsibility - when seeking the votes of those who opposed it.

Worse still, if Mr. Kerry’s stands by his vote to authorize what he later called, “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time”, it would have to be regarded as a complete abdication of his responsibilities as a US Senator, since the authority to declare war is given exclusively to the Congress. Furthermore, if he believes that the President should have the blanket authority (and/or responsibility) as Commander in Chief, to wage war in whatever circumstances may arise, then why would he have voted against the War resolution of 1991?

The subtle nuance of Mr. Kerry’s position is that he wanted to profit by the difficulties which Mr. Bush is suffering in the war, but doesn’t want to share in the responsibility for having launched it.

Under such circumstances, Mr. Kerry’s defeat can’t really be thought of as a defeat of the anti-war movement. It is more properly thought of as the reaction of the American people when given the choice of a President who doesn’t know why he decided to go to war (since Mr. Bush is unperturbed by the absence of the fabled WMD which was the purported casus belli) and a Senator/candidate who doesn’t believe that he should be held responsible for having authorized him to do it.

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