By Harold Pease, Ph. D
“On issue after issue, we cannot rely on a rule-book written for a different century,” so said President Barack Obama to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2014, presumably referencing the U.S. Constitution. You may recall that the current biggest issue is his having initiated war in Syria by bombing ISIS without the constitutional approval of Congress. This is the third country that he has bombed without congressional approval preceded by Libya and Iraq, which gives him a legacy as a war president. Many recall that he was critical of President George W. Bush for having done the same thing.
All war powers are clearly described in Article I, Section 8 and the President is left with none. Once approved, he can execute the war as commander and chief, but still under the funding limitations imposed by the House of Representatives.
The obvious dig on being restricted to a document “written for a different century,” shows a definite lack of respect for the Constitution that he swore by oath to “preserve, protect and defend” (Article 11, Section 1). Some in Congress considered his having done so in Libya an impeachable offense stating thus in Concurrent resolution H. Con. Res. 107, but Democrats did not wish to confine their president. Still, the Presidents phrase is a mockery to the Constitution and should be unacceptable and embarrassing to every American, whether said by a Republican or a Democrat. Ironically the Constitution is designed to harness presidents just like him, and his predecessor George W. Bush, but it will never work if the party in power runs interference for their own constitutional abuser.
It also shows a lack of understanding of the Constitution (whether ignorantly or intentionally), which is based upon human nature and natural law, which does not change from century to century. Man and governments are still beset by the same sins as expressed in all ages. There will always be those that wish to rule over others. Government will always attempt to grow its power. There will always need to be a list of the things governments can do and they will always need to be harnessed to that list. There will always need to be division of power and presidents will always, as James Madison said, “have a propensity for war” and wish to use any military power without consent. And there will always be those who wish to use the force of government to redistribute the wealth so that they can, in effect, purchase elections by “gifting” voters. The magic of the Constitution is that it, outside defense, does not distribute benefits to anyone. These are the reasons that it is said to be outdated by those who wish to take from us our liberties. President Obama’s problem with the Constitution is that it restricts him from doing anything that he wishes and thus his belittling and embarrassing comment before the world.
One of my favorite classes to instruct is Contemporary Political Topics. Students are encouraged to first use the Constitution, then natural law in problem solving, rather than political party or philosophical persuasion. This base is justified because every politician has sworn to “protect, preserve and defend” this document. It is the instrument by which everything should be judged. They love it. Amazingly we have yet to find an issue where the Constitution does not address current problems.
So why should the president have the same restrictions on war as those presidents of a different century? It is because he does not fight on the front lines and is not at real personal risk. It is the sons and daughters of the nation who bleed and die for the cause and it is the taxpayer who funds the war. They, through their representatives in the House of Representatives, elected every two years by those most likely to suffer from the decision, are the ones constitutionally empowered to make the offering. War would than never be taken lightly. Suffering and cost to the nation would always have its proper place in the equation. When the war goes on too long the President must justify to the House the reasons why, and if the peoples’ representatives do not accept his reasons, funding can be limited incrementally to bring an end to it or cutting it off entirely. In short, the people, rather than just one man, make the decision to go to war. As it was under George W. Bush, and now is under Barack Obama, one man and his military machine, both benefiting from war, decide entry and exit, not the people.
The “rule book written in a different century” is still as reliable as before on protecting us on entry and exit of war. What we need today are presidents and legislators that love and use it. In this quest we are embarrassingly in short supply.