Today is the fifth anniversary of Congress's fateful vote on the Authorization to Use Military Force. It was the war declaration that wasn't, a document so expansively vague in its granting of power to the President that it's now being used to justify war on Iran.
It's infuriating to remember that most of us knew at the time that this was the single most important vote those representatives and senators would confront in the course of their entire legislative careers. Many of us were very clear that the future of America as we knew it rested on their decisions on this day. And yet, even so, most of the Democrats in Congress were eager to just vote for the damned thing and get it off their desks. They were looking into the elections, and had other domestic issues they really wanted to talk about instead.
Five years ago this week, The Nation ran a cogent and well-argued plea to these Democrats, desperately making one last bid to get their attention before the die was cast. Reading this piece now, it's sobering to remember just how well so many of us understood the stakes -- and how clearly we were able to forsee the outcome of this catastrophe -- even then.
We knew. We knew, even before the money was spent, that this was a war the nation didn't want. We knew there were no connections between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. We knew there were almost certainly no WMDs, and that Iraq had no immediate plans to attack us. We knew that our government was prone to lie (remembering the Gulf of Tonkin resolution); and we even knew that this was going to be the pretext for a vast presidential power grab, as well as the first step on the way to Tehran. And we knew, beyond a doubt, that thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would die.
An Open Letter To Congress
by the editors of the Nation
September 25, 2002
Soon, you will be asked to vote on a resolution authorizing the United States to overthrow the government of Iraq by military force. Its passage, we read on all sides, is a foregone conclusion, as if what the country now faces is not a decision but the disclosure of a fate. The nation marches as if in a trance to war. In the House, twenty of your number, led by Dennis Kucinich, have announced their opposition to the war. In the Senate, Robert Byrd has mounted a campaign against the version of the resolution already proposed by the Bush Administration. He has said that the resolution's unconstitutionality will prevent him from voting for it. "But I am finding," he adds, "that the Constitution is irrelevant to people of this Administration." The Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the Washington Post, oppose the war. Telephone calls and the mail to your offices run strongly against it. Polls and news stories reveal a divided and uncertain public. Yet debate in your chambers is restricted to peripheral questions, such as the timing of the vote, or the resolution's precise scope. You are a deliberative body, but you do not deliberate. You are representatives, but you do not represent.
The silence of those of you in the Democratic Party is especially troubling. You are the opposition party, but you do not oppose. Raising the subject of the war, your political advisers tell you, will distract from the domestic issues that favor the party's chances in the forthcoming Congressional election. In the face of the Administration's pre-emptive war, your leaders have resorted to pre-emptive surrender. For the sake of staying in power, you are told, you must not exercise the power you have in the matter of the war. What, then, is the purpose of your re-election? If you succeed, you will already have thrown away the power you supposedly have won. You will be members of Congress, but Congress will not be Congress. Even the fortunes of the domestic causes you favor will depend far more on the decision on the war than on the outcome of the election.
On April 4, 1967, as the war in Vietnam was reaching its full fury, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "A time comes when silence is betrayal." And he said, "Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak."
Now the time to speak has come again. We urge you to speak--and, when the time comes, to vote--against the war on Iraq.
The case against the war is simple, clear and strong. The Administration calls it a chapter in the war on terror, but Iraq has no demonstrated ties either to the September 11 attack on the United States or to the Al Qaeda network that launched it. The aim of the war is to deprive President Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction, but the extent of his program for building these weapons, if it still exists, is murky. Still less clear is any intention on his part to use such weapons. To do so would be suicide, as he well knows. Democratic Representative Anna Eshoo of California has reported that in closed session Administration officials have been asked several times whether they have evidence of an imminent threat from Saddam against the United States and have answered no. She elaborated, "Not 'no, but' or 'maybe,' but 'no.'" On the other hand, if he does have them, and faces his overthrow and possible death at the hands of US forces, he might well use them--or, more likely, give them to terrorist groups to use after his fall. He may be doing so even now.
Some observers have likened the resolution under discussion to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964 authorizing President Johnson to use force in Vietnam. But that was passed only after a report was received of two attacks on US naval forces. (We now know that the first attack was provoked by a prior secret American attack and the second was nonexistent.) The new resolution, which alleges no attack, not even a fictional one, goes a step further. It is a Tonkin Gulf resolution without a Tonkin Gulf incident.
Even if Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction and wishes to use them, a policy of deterrence would appear perfectly adequate to stop him, just as it was adequate a half-century ago to stop a much more fearsome dictator, Joseph Stalin. It is not true that military force is the only means of preventing the proliferation of these weapons, whether to Iraq or other countries. An alternative path is clearly available. In the short run it passes through the United Nations and its system of inspections, now more promising than before because Iraq, responding to US pressure, has opened itself unconditionally to inspectors. At the very least, this path should be fully explored before military action--the traditional last resort--is even considered. Such a choice in favor of multilateralism, diplomacy and treaty agreements should be part of a much broader policy of nonproliferation and disarmament of the kind that has already enjoyed great success over the past several decades. Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, for example, 182 nations have agreed to do without nuclear weapons. The larger issue is whether proliferation--not just to Iraq but to many other countries as well--is best addressed by military or political means.
But the decision to go to war has a significance that goes far beyond the war. The war is the product of a broader policy that has been spelled out in the clearest possible terms by the Bush Administration. Two other countries with nuclear programs--Iran and North Korea--have already been identified by the President as potential targets for military attack. The Administration's recently published "National Security Strategy of the United States" sets forth even larger ambitions. It declares a policy of military supremacy over the entire earth--an objective never before attained by any power. Military programs are meanwhile forbidden to other countries, all of whom are to be prevented from "surpassing or equaling" the United States. China is singled out for a warning that by "pursuing advanced military capabilities," it is following an "outdated path" that "threaten[s] its neighbors." The new policy reverses a long American tradition of contempt for unprovoked attacks. It gives the United States the unrestricted right to attack nations even when it has not been attacked by them and is not about to be attacked by them. It trades deterrence for pre-emption--in plain English, aggression. It accords the United States the right to overthrow any regime--like the one in Iraq--it decides should be overthrown. (The President would like international support and he would like Congressional support but asserts his right to wage war without either.) It declares that the defense of the United States and the world against nuclear proliferation is military force. It is an imperial policy--more ambitious than ancient Rome's, which, after all, extended only to the Mediterranean and European world. Nelson Mandela recently said of the Administration, "They think they're the only power in the world.... One country wants to bully the world."
A vote for the war in Iraq is a vote for this policy. The most important of the questions raised by the war, however, is larger still. It is what sort of country the United States wants to be in the twenty-first century. The genius of the American form of government was the creation of a system of institutions to check and balance government power and so render it accountable to the people. Today that system is threatened by a monster of unbalanced and unaccountable power--a new Leviathan--that is taking shape among us in the executive branch of the government. This Leviathan--concealed in an ever-deepening, self-created secrecy and fed by streams of money from corporations that, as scandal after scandal has shown, have themselves broken free of elementary accountability--menaces civil liberties even as it threatens endless, unprovoked war. As disrespectful of the Constitution as it is of the UN Charter, the Administration has turned away from law in all its manifestations and placed its reliance on overwhelming force to achieve its ends.
In pursuit of empire abroad, it endangers the Republic at home. The bully of the world threatens to become the bully of Americans, too. Already, the Justice Department claims the right to jail American citizens indefinitely on the sole ground that a bureaucrat in the Pentagon has labeled them something called an "enemy combatant." Even the domestic electoral system has been compromised by the debacle in Florida. Nor has the shadow cast on democracy by that election yet been lifted. Election reform has not occurred. Modest campaign reform designed to slow the flood of corporate cash into politics, even after passage in Congress, is being eviscerated by executive decisions. More important, this year's Congressional campaign, by shunning debate on the fundamental issue of war and peace, has signaled to the public that even in the most important matters facing the country neither it nor its representatives decide; only the executive does.
Members of Congress! Be faithful to your oaths of office and to the traditions of your branch of government. Think of the country, not of your re-election. Assert your power. Stand up for the prerogatives of Congress. Defend the Constitution. Reject the arrogance--and the ignorance--of power. Show respect for your constituents--they require your honest judgment, not capitulation to the executive. Say no to empire. Affirm the Republic. Preserve the peace. Vote against war in Iraq.
We knew. And we screamed in the streets, ten million strong around the world. But our Democratic representatives, eager to move on to the next agenda item, sidestepped our quaint DFH tantrums, did what Bush asked, and expected the whole thing to fade into the past.
We waste a lot of breath these days trying to suss out who knew what, and when -- as if people were confused about the issues, as if the facts were in dispute.
This article is a letter from history reminding us that not only did every member of Congress know what they were getting us into; tens of millions of Americans and the entire alternative media did, too. Right when it mattered, we knew every blessed thing we needed to know -- including, in great detail, where we'd be now as a result of these choices.
We knew the whole story -- and we went anyway. And today, five years later, we have to live with the fact that every one of our worst expectations has come to pass.
The least we can do is not let our leaders continue to blow smoke about whether or not they were clear on what they were doing.