The “father of the Constitution” James Madison 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 any regime, anywhere, at any time in history has sought more 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.
Most Americans, from the Founding Fathers to the current generation, would likely agree that the decision to wage war is probably the most important one our federal government will ever make. Madison also noted that it was a fairly universal truth that the more powerful the government leader — kings, prime ministers, presidents — the more interest there will be in going to war. He wrote: “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 emphasized: “[The Constitution] has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.”
Last week, Sen. 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 Barack Obama now advertises — bringing the troops home, ending hostilities, etc. Hell, Obama starts and ends wars without even the pretension of seeking legal authority (see Libya). DeMint’s support was for something much different and more significant. He voted to end the Iraq War by demanding that the president should no longer be able to legally wage it.
The United States has not officially declared war since World War II. Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan — none of these were “wars” officially, though the men and women who fought them might beg to differ. President George W. Bush took us to war with Iraq in 2003 in the same extraconstitutional manner; he went to Congress to get “authorization,” but both Congress and the president did not think Iraq important enough, apparently, to declare war officially, as the Constitution demands.
When Sen. 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 Olympia Snowe of Maine. It is DeMint’s vote that is the most instructive.
Sen. Paul is a Tea Party champion who has always been up front about his opposition to the Iraq War. While Sen. Snowe’s vote was commendable, she is not exactly a guiding light for most Republicans. Sen. Heller’s profile is probably the lowest of the four. But as a conservatives’ conservative who has long supported the Iraq War, Sen. DeMint has now decided it must come to an end in the fullest legal sense. On most issues, the Right has long followed DeMint’s lead. On the issue of Iraq and placing limits on executive power, conservatives need to keep following it.
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 presidents will have the power to do whatever he likes militarily in Iraq without so much as consulting Congress. Many Republican congressmen 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 checks and balances — and this neglect is now being applied to arguably the most important issue our leaders will ever consider. The reason Madison believed that “the executive is the branch of power most interested in war” is because it is true, and why the Constitution “vested the question of war in the Legislature” is because the president alone should not be trusted with such power.
Concerning war, Americans can have Madison or Obama, but they cannot have both. Last month, Sen. Jim DeMint chose Madison. The rest of his fellow conservatives must eventually choose too.
Jack Hunter is the official campaign blogger for GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, and he co-wrote Rand Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington. You can hear Southern Avenger commentaries on The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd on 1250 WTMA.