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America must accept the limitations of its military power

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In the spring of 1975, I was an Air Force captain serving as an intelligence analyst at a base in Thailand on the joint staff of the four-star officer charged with the command of military actions  that might be taken by U.S. forces should the North Vietnamese violate the 1973 peace accords.  In that capacity, I was involved in the intelligence support for the evacuations of Americans and others from Phnom Penh and Saigon that spring. In doing my job, I became a front-row witness to the final chaotic days of America’s participation in what we called the Vietnam War, but which the victorious North Vietnamese dubbed the “American War.” 

Being driven from Saigon was humiliating for Americans and catastrophic for the people of South Vietnam. More than 45 years later, as a private citizen viewing the events from afar, I have seen similar chaos, American humiliation and catastrophe facing Afghans who opposed the Taliban. 

My purpose is not to add to the cascade of criticism being levied against our current commander in chief, or to become yet another player in the blame game that has begun on both ends of the political spectrum about who “lost” Afghanistan. Nor do I intend to argue that some other military strategy, had it only been adopted, would have yielded success in Afghanistan and avoided what happened at the Kabul airport. Instead, my plea is that we Americans finally accept the limits of our military power and adjust our attitudes and institutions to the reality of those limits.  

The debacle in Vietnam sent a clear message: American military power cannot be successfully employed to create governments or cultures in our image. Yet, in Afghanistan, what began as a successful military campaign against the Taliban and their terrorist compatriots morphed into yet another failed attempt at converting a foreign country into a “democracy” along American lines. We need to do all we can to reduce the chances of repeating such follies. 

First, we need to break free from our national love affair with our military power. There is no question that we can deliver the mightiest of combat punches virtually any place in the world. But we need to face reality. Since our hard-won victory in World War  II, we have lost more wars than we have won. We fought to a stalemate in Korea and lost in Vietnam, Iraq (the second time around) and Afghanistan. Our one clearly successful major military engagement was President George H.W. Bush’s defeat of Saddam Hussein after he had invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990. President Bush put together an international coalition, led by American soldiers, that delivered a first-round knockout of Saddam’s forces. Although Baghdad was open for the taking by American troops, Bush declined to do so and withdrew the troops from Iraq, thereby avoiding the mistaken path his son later would take.

Second, Congress must reclaim the central role in war-making decisions the Constitution gives it. Under the Constitution, only Congress can declare war. However, since President Harry Truman committed tens of thousands of U.S. troops to war on the Korean Peninsula in 1950, without a congressional declaration of war, Congress has acquiesced in a determined presidential war-making power grab.  

By 2003, when President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, he claimed that it was the “longstanding position of the executive branch” that the commander in chief has “the constitutional authority to use force to deter, prevent or respond to aggression or other threats to U.S. interests.” Even though he didn’t think he needed Congress’s support to launch the invasion, it was wise politics to seek it. Accordingly, Bush sought and received from Congress an “authorization for the use of military force” supporting the invasion. The authorization ceded broad powers to the president in identifying the enemies and conducting war against them. Significantly, the authorization was without any time limit, allowing what became the “forever war” in Afghanistan. 

Going forward, Congress needs to assert its war-making powers. Space limitations do not permit a complete rundown on what Congress should do. Here, in summary form, are some actions that should be on Congress’s agenda: remove the loophole in the 1973 War Powers Resolution that allows the president a 60- to 90-day window to engage in combat without congressional action; repeal the outstanding (and now moot) authorizations for use of military force for Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2002) and never again pass a non-specific, opened-end authorization for the president to conduct military operations; and pass a bill that precludes the president from engaging in the first use of nuclear weapons without express congressional authorization.

Third, in all instances that are likely to entail sustained military action, we should ensure that the cost of doing so is broadly shared among all currently living Americans. We should not finance foreign wars with trillions of dollars that are borrowed today and become part of the national debt to be repaid by future generations. If the military actions proposed by our leaders truly enhance the security of Americans today, those Americans should be taxed to pay for it today. Hiding huge combat costs in the annual defense budget should not be allowed. 

A trickier question is who should fight our wars? Since the demise of the draft and the advent of the all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War, America has outsourced the fighting of our wars to a cadre of professional warriors who are increasingly isolated from the mainstream of American society. Their sacrifice is immense: some die; many are maimed and many more suffer the personal anguish of years away from their families. That’s just not fair and it makes it all too easy for our leaders to send in the troops. It is well to remember that what finally stopped support for the Vietnam War was the draft lottery. When contemplating major military engagements, Congress should look beyond the all-volunteer force to staff them.

Finally, we must remember that American power is ultimately grounded on the success of our republican form of government, the strength of our people, the vibrancy of our society and the success of our economic model. Every dollar we spend on foreign wars is a dollar taken from our crucial efforts to build a better America at home.      

Scott Barker is senior counsel at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell LLP in Denver, Colo., a veteran with service as a military intelligence officer, and a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. His most recent book is “The Kings of War: How our Modern Presidents Hijacked Congress’s War-Making Powers and What To Do About It.”

Tags Declaration of war US military Vietnam War War in Afghanistan War Powers Resolution

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