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Congress v. the President in Iraq and Vietnam

The midterm congressional elections in November 2006, with the return of a Democratic majority to both houses of Congress (although razor thin in the Senate), have been widely interpreted as an antiwar referendum on the Iraq conflict. A majority of Americans now oppose the Iraq War and believe it was a mistake. On January 10, 2007, President George W. Bush announced there would be an escalation of the conflict with the deployment of 21,500 additional military personnel to ravaged Baghdad and to Anbar province, a major source of the Sunni resistance to American colonialism. As a direct response, the House of Representatives on February 16 passed a historically significant resolution that “disapproves of the decision” to effectuate this “surge.” While brief and couched in a politically defensive manner, to avert charges of abandoning previously deployed American military forces, it explicitly challenges a president and his conduct of the war. While I would hope that an eventual cut off of funding would be consummated to prevent continued military action in Iraq, the Democratic-controlled House has taken a significant first step in passing this non-binding antiwar resolution.

Not since the Vietnam War has the nation witnessed such congressional courage in resisting a significant escalation of a disastrous and immoral war. Richard Nixon in his epochal April 30, 1970 announcement, declared that Cambodia would be invaded by U.S. and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (A.R.V.N.) forces to destroy the Central Office for South Vietnam. This alleged North Vietnamese “Pentagon” we were told had to be destroyed or “totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.” Such a command center did not exist and was never located. Similar to the Bush administration’s prewar assertion that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it is another egregious example of deliberate disinformation or careless inattention to inconclusive intelligence used to justify an invasion of a third country.

During Vietnam, it was the Senate and not the House of Representatives that attempted to constrain the military action of an imperial presidency. By 1970, Americans had tired of the war and wanted to withdraw from Vietnam. Senators John Sherman Cooper, Republican of Kentucky and Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, led a bipartisan effort to reverse the escalation. The Cooper-Church Amendment was an effort to stop a Nixonian expansion of the conflict. This post-surge amendment would have cut off all funding for the Cambodian “incursion” by June 30; it passed the Senate but died in the House. Yet Nixon, perhaps coincidentally, did withdraw American and A.R.V.N. forces from Cambodia by the end of June. It is unlikely Mr. Bush would be prepared to follow a similar Nixon disengagement strategy given his oft-repeated commitment to continue his futile crusade for military “victory” for the remainder of his presidency.

Furthermore, in June 1970 the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was repealed by the Senate. Passed in 1964, it was the closest Congress came to a declaration of war. It followed non-existent and possibly fabricated North Vietnamese patrol-boat attacks on the U.S.S. Maddox and U.S.S. C. Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4. While perhaps moot by 1970 due to Vietnamization, it was, nevertheless, a dramatic withdrawal of Senate support for the Vietnam War. Senator Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware, and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed a similar repeal of the Senate’s “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution” of October 2002.

Nixon pursued his “Peace With Honor” with strategic bombing and “Operation Linebackers” with their horrific Vietnamese civilian casualties for another two and a half years. It seems unlikely that a similar Senate or House of Representatives repeal of their authorizations to use force, would materially alter the neo-conservative-messianic-imperialist vision that continues to hold sway at the Executive Branch. It would not succeed in coercing the president to terminate the conflict and withdraw American occupation forces from Iraq.

The most heroic effort by Congress to stop the Vietnam War was the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment. Named after Senator George McGovern, Democrat of South Dakota, and Senator Mark Hatfield, Republican of Oregon, it was another post-Cambodian “surge” response. It was introduced in 1970 and would have required Nixon to withdraw all American forces from Vietnam by the end of 1971. It would have reserved funding only for the safe and orderly withdrawal of American forces. While the amendment could not garner a majority in either house, it did receive the support of some thirty-nine Senators. When it was introduced on September 1, 1970, the future presidential candidate George McGovern said:

It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

It would appear that if the 110th Congress wishes to end the carnage and the crime that is Iraq, it would have to cease funding future military operations. This would take political courage because of the never ending myth that supporting the war is required in order to support the troops. Of course, military conflicts are not fought for the troops but for alleged war aims that purportedly serve the national interest. Whether those war aims are just or not, wars are never fought to benefit the combatants, who suffer and sacrifice greatly in a conflict, but for some other constituency.

In the Iraq War, 3,180 Americans have been killed in action and some 24,000 have been wounded. United States military personnel should not be asked to continue that kind of sacrifice unless the mission is just, the war had been waged as a last resort and the support of the American people is widespread and sustaining. In Vietnam, beginning with the TET Offensive in January 1968, the country had progressively recognized that the war was wrong, that the sacrifice was too great and that the killing must end. Congress should be willing to end this Iraq War and challenge, however belatedly, the president’s constitutional authority to wage preemptive war under the most egregious and false pretenses.

We do not need to accept a restrictive notion of patriotism as merely an expression of national or presidential worshipping in time of war. Engaged citizens would do well to remember Vietnam, when a Congress decided that the national interest and the international community would benefit from an end to the war. Such is the time now, when militarists need to be challenged, super-patriots need to be confronted and a president needs to be stopped in the prosecution of the Iraq War.