Walter Pincus of the Washington Post is the paper’s most consistently readable columnist addressing foreign policy and national security issues. Which is no doubt why he seldom appears on the editorial/op-ed pages and is instead consigned to a corner plot on something called the “Fed Page,” which follows business news.
In today’s paper Pincus suggests that Bob Schieffer, moderator of the upcoming Monday presidential debate on foreign policy, ask the two candidates about war powers. The war powers issue is fundamental to the current U.S. malaise as the de facto acceptance of presidential prerogative to go to war has created what is essentially a permanent state of small-scale wars and so-called humanitarian interventions. The Constitution is clear that only Congress has the authority to declare war, but it is also true that the United States is obliged to comply with treaties that it has entered into. U.S. membership in the UN is based on a treaty ratified by the Senate which enables Washington to participate in military operations authorized by the Security Council, though it does not require American involvement. This is why both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have sought UN approval for actions taken against Iraq, Libya, and now Syria.
Pincus notes that Mitt Romney has stated that he believes that the president currently has full authority to use military force against nations like Iran. As Obama has engaged in military action in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Uganda without any sanction from the United Nations, he apparently shares that belief. Pincus describes how Obama ordered military operations against Libya with a two-page letter to Congress claiming that as “commander in chief he had constitutional authority to authorize the military operations to prevent a humanitarian disaster.”
As presidential prerogative would appear to be an essentially unconstitutional and possibly illegal mechanism for starting a war of aggression against Iran, Pincus goes on to ask, “Does Obama or Romney believe that any military action against Iran would be as limited as the one in Libya?…What solution is required by each candidate for this situation [Iranian enrichment of uranium]? Do they believe that any deal with Iran requires Israeli approval?”
Apropos of cutting a deal with Iran, at a conference yesterday in Washington former senior CIA analyst Paul Pillar noted that an agreement with Tehran over its nuclear program is within reach. It requires negotiation to have Iran back off from its enrichment program in stages while sanctions against it are also removed in a commensurate fashion, the stick and carrot approach. Obviously any rapprochement with Iran would face strong opposition from various domestic constituencies as well as from the Israeli government, but the only alternative is to maintain a constant state of no-war no-peace with red lines that are very much subject to interpretation. Or to go to war. Neither Romney nor Obama seems prepared to do what is necessary to change direction and peacefully resolve a long simmering rivalry and both are instead inclined to cite prerogative to start an armed conflict that could easily have catastrophic consequences. They should certainly be challenged on these views and what the possible consequences might be, though it is doubtful whether either will respond to such serious questions with candor.