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Campaign Promises and Ending Wars

Elizabeth Warren wrote an article outlining in general terms how she would bring America’s current foreign wars to an end. Perhaps the most significant part of the article is her commitment to respect Congress’ constitutional role in matters of war:

We will hold ourselves to this by recommitting to a simple idea: the constitutional requirement that Congress play a primary role in deciding to engage militarily. The United States should not fight and cannot win wars without deep public support. Successive administrations and Congresses have taken the easy way out by choosing military action without proper authorizations or transparency with the American people. The failure to debate these military missions in public is one of the reasons they have been allowed to continue without real prospect of success [bold mine-DL].

On my watch, that will end. I am committed to seeking congressional authorization if the use of force is required. Seeking constrained authorizations with limited time frames will force the executive branch to be open with the American people and Congress about our objectives, how the operation is progressing, how much it is costing, and whether it should continue.

Warren’s commitment on this point is welcome, and it is what Americans should expect and demand from their presidential candidates. It should be the bare minimum requirement for anyone seeking to be president, and any candidate who won’t commit to respecting the Constitution should never be allowed to have the powers of that office. The president is not permitted to launch attacks and start wars alone, but Congress and the public have allowed several presidents to do just that without any consequences. It is time to put a stop to illegal presidential wars, and it is also time to put a stop to open-ended authorizations of military force. Warren’s point about asking for “constrained authorizations with limited time frames” is important, and it is something that we should insist on in any future debate over the use of force. The 2001 and 2002 AUMFs are still on the books and have been abused and stretched beyond recognition to apply to groups that didn’t exist when they were passed so that the U.S. can fight wars in countries that don’t threaten our security. Those need to be repealed as soon as possible to eliminate the opening that they have provided the executive to make war at will.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is unimpressed with Warren’s rhetoric:

But what has Warren offered to do differently, or better? She’s made no notable break with the class of experts who run our failing foreign policy. Unlike Bernie Sanders, and like Trump or Obama, she hasn’t hired a foreign-policy staff committed to a different vision. And so her promise to turn war powers back to Congress should be considered as empty as Obama’s promise to do the same. Her promise to bring troops home would turn out to be as meaningless as a Trump tweet saying the same.

We shouldn’t discount Warren’s statements so easily. When a candidate makes specific commitments about ending U.S. wars during a campaign, that is different from making vague statements about having a “humble” foreign policy. Bush ran on a conventional hawkish foreign policy platform, and there were also no ongoing wars for him to campaign against, so we can’t say that he ever ran as a “dove.” Obama campaigned against the Iraq war and ran on ending the U.S. military presence there, and before his first term was finished almost all U.S. troops were out of Iraq. It is important to remember that he did not campaign against the war in Afghanistan, and instead argued in support of it. His subsequent decision to commit many more troops there was a mistake, but it was entirely consistent with what he campaigned on. In other words, he withdrew from the country he promised to withdraw from, and escalated in the country where he said the U.S. should be fighting. Trump didn’t actually campaign on ending any wars, but he did talk about “bombing the hell” out of ISIS, and after he was elected he escalated the war on ISIS. His anti-Iranian obsession was out in the open from the start if anyone cared to pay attention to it. In short, what candidates commit to doing during a campaign does matter and it usually gives you a good idea of what a candidate will do once elected.

If Warren and some of the other Democratic candidates are committing to ending U.S. wars, we shouldn’t assume that they won’t follow through on those commitments because previous presidents proved to be the hawks that they admitted to being all along. Presidential candidates often tell us exactly what they mean to do, but we have to be paying attention to everything they say and not just one catchphrase that they said a few times. If voters want a more peaceful foreign policy, they should vote for candidates that actually campaign against ongoing wars instead of rewarding the ones that promise and then deliver escalation. But just voting for the candidates that promise an end to wars is not enough if Americans want Congress to start doing its job by reining in the executive. If we don’t want presidents to run amok on war powers, there have to be political consequences for the ones that have done that and there needs to be steady pressure on Congress to take back their role in matters of war. Voters should select genuinely antiwar candidates, but then they also have to hold those candidates accountable once they’re in office.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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