Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – Here is what I think is the wisest and smartest of all those questions. Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, who is a professor of history and international relations, puts this entire issue in what I think is the proper light. This is the light that I have been trying to cast on it and will continue to cast on it, although I have not previously heretofore gone as far as Bacevich has in his post. Check out today’s transcript for the rest…
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: Here is what I think is the wisest and smartest of all those questions. Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, who is a professor of history and international relations, puts this entire issue in what I think is the proper light. This is the light that I have been trying to cast on it and will continue to cast on it, although I have not previously heretofore gone as far as Bacevich has in his post, originally posted at TomDispatch and was reprinted last night at the American Conservative Magazine, amconmag.com. It’s titled “Obama’s Guns of August.”
The major point in Bacevich’s analysis of this situation is that the Congress actually has a chance to do something that most congresses never have a chance to do. The Congress of Boehner and company, and you can throw Harry “Worthless Warbucks” Reed in there if you like and say that the Senate also has a chance to partake of this. The Congress of Boehner, the House of Representin’ actually has an historic opportunity here. The historic opportunity here is to begin the process of ceasing and stopping the Middle Eastern madness that began in the administration of James Earl Carter in 1978. Bacevich makes this point. I don’t know that all the president’s men have completely thought about it in the manner that Professor Bacevich has. Bacevich asks the question of whether or not — think about this for a moment. Has President Obama given Congress a card to play, not only against him but against his successor, who many think is going to be Mrs. Clinton? What he means by that, I’ll just translate that or flesh is out for you. Prior to the invention of the almighty executive — AG, have you heard of the term bully pulpit?
Mike: That was Teddy Roosevelt. What was it that the bully pulpit could be used for? The bully pulpit allowed the President of the United States, who did not have unilateral powers back in the day, it gave the president a platform from which to preach, to proselytize on his chosen subject of interest. For Teddy Roosevelt, it was “walk softly and carry a big stick.” It was the beginning of progressive internationalism. It’s what drove Roosevelt in the final years of his private life. He used that bully pulpit to try and diminish those that were political opponents of his or those who did not sign onto or think that the tidal wave of progressivism that ultimately would attain and achieve major victories in between 1900 and 1920, Roosevelt seemed nervous and worried that that wouldn’t happen. He shouldn’t have been because the progressives got everything they went after and then some.
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In any event, the president therefore, we just look back in history, was limited to the use of, as the term applies, the bully pulpit. In other words, he could orate, he could speak loudly, he could yell, he could command a lot of attention, but he could not wage wars and run around and act like a king. He was still constrained and limited by the Constitution. He was still constrained and limited by the separation of powers. Had Teddy Roosevelt lived into the 1940s or 1930s to see the unbelievable damage that Franklin Delanobama Roosevelt would reap upon the limited powers of the presidency, Teddy may not have been thundering as loud about all the things that needed to happen and all the things he was screaming and hollering about from the bully pulpit.
But just compare then to now. Theodore Roosevelt, when he was president, circa 1904, would not have had the authority to do the things that he thought a progressive and powerful president should be able to do. All he could do was yell about them and try to get people to do his bidding. Fast forward into the 1930s, as I said, then into the 1950s with President Truman saying: I don’t have to have any authorization for this action in North Korea. We’ve got treaties, man, I don’t need Congress. We’re gonna have us a war. Then the idea of this War Powers Resolution was floated out there. Then you give President Kennedy, who then unintentionally handed it to President Johnson for the “police action” in southeast Asia, Vietnam, which escalated ultimately into a full-blown war. You fast forward to James Earl Carter and that’s where Bacevich picks up on the point. It was President Carter that issued the edict that said the United States had to be strong and bold in the Middle East, and that we were not going to allow for certain things to happen because it was against our interest. It was Carter that began the modern version of this.
Were these presidents acting within the confines of their constitutional powers? The answer to that query is no. It didn’t matter. As the office of the presidency became more powerful, and as the standing army that was at his disposal became more leaned upon, it was a turn-away from our prior disposition toward diplomacy in foreign policy and toward a disposition where we thought we could deal with foreign policy with the military, thus the military buildups, thus the building of bombs and frigates and destroyers and battleships and planes and tanks and you name it. We will rule the world by the force of our arms. To hear Bacevich tell the story, and he’s a professor in these matters at Boston University, is to take a short ride back through the history of the early part of the last half of the 20th century.
Congress’s ability to conduct foreign policy, which was the purview of the Congress — nowhere in the Constitution is it even inferred that the president controls foreign policy and sets the foreign policy standards. A fair reading of the document and a fair listening to the debates over its ratification and the early use of it — we talked about this last week with James Madison telling Alexander Hamilton in the Pacificus v. Helvidius debates that not even General George Washington as president has unilateral authority to do anything even like saying we are neutral in a situation. That is a power left to Congress.
In other words, modern Americans have invented this monstrosity of the almighty president. Congress has allowed it to happen. The reason Congress allowed it to happen is because it’s good business. Congress then doesn’t have to be responsible for any of this. Presidents either get all the glory or they get all the blame. Even though the Constitution vested that power in the House and in the Congress, presidents today get all the glory and all the blame, which is why you have all these people running around on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and all the other news networks [mocking] “Obama’s leading from behind. We need a president that leads from the front.” No, we don’t. We need a president that knows what his damn role is in the constitutional system and stands down and defers to the Congress.
What is the question that Bacevich is asking here? Is the Congress of the United States prepared to say no — I believe this would be the first time this has actually happened — to say no to a president’s request for war? If the Congress is prepared to do that, and if they are going to vote on this in the negative, meaning they are not going to give the resolution to use military force their approbation, does that then mean that there is a historical sea change afoot? Does that then mean that we are finally going to begin the process of standing down when it comes to foreign affairs and stop being the bully of the entire known universe? I’ll pick up with Bacevich about two-thirds of the way through his post.
Back in 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would employ any means necessary to prevent a hostile power from gaining control of the Persian Gulf. In retrospect, it’s clear enough that the promulgation of the so-called Carter Doctrine amounted to a de facto presidential “declaration” of war (even if Carter himself did not consciously intend to commit the United States to perpetual armed conflict in the region). Certainly, what followed was a never-ending sequence of wars and war-like episodes. Although the Congress never formally endorsed Carter’s declaration, it tacitly acceded to all that his commitment subsequently entailed.
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Relatively modest in its initial formulation, the Carter Doctrine quickly metastasized. Geographically, it grew far beyond the bounds of the Persian Gulf, eventually encompassing virtually all of the Islamic world. Washington’s own ambitions in the region also soared. Rather than merely preventing a hostile power from achieving dominance in the Gulf, the United States was soon seeking to achieve dominance itself. Dominance—that is, shaping the course of events to Washington’s liking—was said to hold the key to maintaining stability, ensuring access to the world’s most important energy reserves, checking the spread of Islamic radicalism, combating terrorism, fostering Israel’s security, and promoting American values. Through the adroit use of military might, dominance actually seemed plausible. (So at least Washington persuaded itself.)
What this meant in practice was the wholesale militarization of U.S. policy toward the Greater Middle East in a period in which Washington’s infatuation with military power was reaching its zenith. As the Cold War wound down, the national security apparatus shifted its focus from defending Germany’s Fulda Gap to projecting military power throughout the Islamic world. In practical terms, this shift found expression in the creation of Central Command (CENTCOM), reconfigured forces, and an eternal round of contingency planning, war plans, and military exercises in the region. To lay the basis for the actual commitment of troops, the Pentagon established military bases, stockpiled material in forward locations, and negotiated transit rights. It also courted and armed proxies. In essence, the Carter Doctrine provided the Pentagon (along with various U.S. intelligence agencies) with a rationale for honing and then exercising new capabilities.
Capabilities expanded the range of policy options. Options offered opportunities to “do something” in response to crisis. From the Reagan era on, policymakers seized upon those opportunities with alacrity. A seemingly endless series of episodes and incidents ensued, as U.S. forces, covert operatives, or proxies engaged in hostile actions (often on multiple occasions) in Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, the southern Philippines, and in the Persian Gulf itself, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider them altogether and what you have is a War for the Greater Middle East, pursued by the United States for over three decades now. If Congress gives President Obama the green light, Syria will become the latest front in this ongoing enterprise. [Mike: Some of us have been saying something similar to this, but not with nearly the detail that Professor Bacevich is.]
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A debate over the Syrian AUMF should encourage members of Congress—if they’ve got the guts—to survey this entire record of U.S. military activities in the Greater Middle East going back to 1980. To do so means almost unavoidably confronting this simple question: How are we doing? To state the matter directly, all these years later, given all the ordnance expended, all the toing-and-froing of U.S. forces, and all the lives lost or shattered along the way, is mission accomplishment anywhere insight? Or have U.S. troops—the objects of such putative love and admiration on the part of the American people—been engaged over the past 30-plus years in a fool’s errand? How members cast their votes on the Syrian AUMF will signal their answer—and by extension the nation’s answer—to that question.
To okay an attack on Syria will, in effect, reaffirm the Carter Doctrine and put a stamp of congressional approval on the policies that got us where we are today. A majority vote in favor of the Syrian AUMF will sustain and probably deepen Washington’s insistence that the resort to violence represents the best way to advance U.S. interests in the Islamic world. From this perspective, all we need to do is try harder and eventually we’ll achieve a favorable outcome. With Syria presumably the elusive but never quite attained turning point, the Greater Middle East will stabilize. Democracy will flourish. And the United States will bask in the appreciation of those we have freed from tyranny.
To vote against the AUMF, on the other hand, will draw a red line of much greater significance than the one that President Obama himself so casually laid down. Should the majority in either House reject the Syrian AUMF, the vote will call into question the continued viability of the Carter Doctrine and all that followed in its wake.
It will create space to ask whether having another go is likely to produce an outcome any different from what the United States has achieved in the myriad places throughout the Greater Middle East where U.S. forces (or covert operatives) have, whatever their intentions, spent the past several decades wreaking havoc and sowing chaos under the guise of doing good. Instead of offering more of the same—does anyone seriously think that ousting Assad will transform Syria into an Arab Switzerland?—rejecting the AUMF might even invite the possibility of charting an altogether different course, entailing perhaps a lower military profile and greater self-restraint.
What a stirring prospect! Imagine members of Congress setting aside partisan concerns to debate first-order questions of policy. Imagine them putting the interests of the country in front of their own worries about winning reelection or pursuing their political ambitions. It would be like Lincoln vs. Douglas or Woodrow Wilson vs. Henry Cabot Lodge. Call Doris Kearns Goodwin. Call Spielberg or Sorkin. Get me Capra, for God’s sake. We’re talking high drama of blockbuster proportions.
Mike: In other words, a turning point could be at hand. Does the Congress have the temerity, the bravery, and the courage to begin the process of undoing the damage of the last 30 years, which, of course, you’re going to have to admit has been done, and to forestall or forego yet another opportunity to be the biggest military bully in the known universe? That’s what it comes down to, taking the humble route, swallow a little crow, accept some humility and back the you-know-what off. Just don’t do it. Or just give the president the power. The only question that remains is, why did Obama seeks Congress’s approval? Does he tacitly want to end the imperial presidency? Or was he told by advisors that he risked impeachment if he didn’t? I’m going to choose choice B, but I hope it was choice A.
End Mike Church Show Transcript