Post 9/11 authorization to use military force has been used to intervene in 19 countries. Congress ought to reclaim its authority to declare war, explains Col. Larry Wilkerson
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Under the US Constitution, Congress, not the President, has the right to declare war. Of late, given the lunacy in Washington, concerns over who has the right to declare war is increasing. The debate has intensified this month after four US soldiers were killed in Niger when some high ranking congressional members declared that they did not even know we had this many soldiers in Niger. LINDSEY GRAHAM: But I didn’t know there was 1000 troops in Niger. John McCain is right to tell the military because this is an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time or geography. You’ve got to tell us more and he’s right to say that. SPEAKER: You heard Senator Graham there. He didn’t know we had 1000 troops in Niger. Did you? SPEAKER: No, I did not. SHARMINI PERIES: President Donald Trump talk about attacking North Korea with the fire and fury, or sidelining Secretary of State Tillerson’s diplomatic efforts by saying, “Tillerson is wasting his time on North Korea. Save your energy, Rex. We’ll do what has to be done.” These types of comments or tweets has people on edge, concerned about what Trump might himself do with the nuclear trigger at his fingertips. Add to these concerns the unexpected attack on the airfield in Syria, the threatening comments about Iran and the talk of unilaterally decertifying a multilateral nuclear agreement, these actions have not eased people’s concerns. A major issue some senators have are the number of military operations the US is engaged in since 2001. Let’s remember that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, AUMF, was passed just after 9/11 in a state of emergency, giving the President the authorization to act swiftly if necessary. In his opening comments on Monday, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, who recently aired his contention with President Trump, had this to say. BOB CORKER: In his last War Powers Resolution letter to Congress, the President identified the following 19 countries where US military personnel were deployed and equipped for combat. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Kenya, Niger, Cameroon, Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central Africa, African Republic, Djibouti, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Cuba and Kosovo. SHARMINI PERIES: Both Secretary of State Tillerson and Defense Secretary Mattis appeared before the committee and others, of course, testified as well on Monday where they defended the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. SPEAKER: As one who voted for that AUMF when I was in Congress in 2001, I never intended and I think all of us never intended it would still be used today to justify the use of military force against ISIS. SPEAKER: The 2001 AUMF remains a cornerstone for ongoing US military operations and continues to provide legal authority relied upon to defeat this threat. Our legal authorities for heading off a transnational threat like ISIS cannot be constrained by geographic boundaries. SPEAKER: The 2001 and 2002 authorizations to use military force or AUMF, remain a sound basis for ongoing US military operations. A new AUMF is not legally required to address the continuing threat posed by Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS. Repealing the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs would only cause unneccesary policy and legal uncertainty which could lead to additional litigation and public doubt. SPEAKER: Not one member of this panel was in the senate when the 2001 AUMF was passed, or the 2002 for that matter. SPEAKER: We haven’t weighed in. We haven’t said our peace. We haven’t voted on this, but Congress needs to weigh in. SHARMINI PERIES: Joining me now to analyze these developments is Colonel Larry Wilkerson. Larry is a retired US colonel and former Chief of State to the Secretary of State Colin Powell. Now, a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Thanks for joining us, Larry. LARRY WILKERSON: Good to be with you, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: So Larry, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, AUMF, was passed just after 9/11 when the country was in a state of emergency. Was it meant to last this long, 16 years? LARRY WILKERSON: I think the AUMF and its perpetuity almost, 16+ years now, I guess 16 years, a month, and several days, is a very dangerous thing. As James Madison said, the surest way to tyranny is through the War Power. The military’s understandable. Mattis, Kelly, McMaster, all those guys. They’re understandable, ’cause the military never wants any inhibitions in its way when it feels like its at war. But we’ve used this Authorization for the Use of Military Force for 14 different countries. We’ve used it 37 times. Everyone knows about Iraq and Afghanistan, but they don’t know about Djibouti, Yemen, the Philippines, Kenya, Eritrea, Niger, and on and on. It’s about time the Congress exercised its Article 1 War Power, and took some of this back from the President. This is absurd that we can, we’re looking at another 16-17 years. I mean, there’s no end in sight to this. The military salivates over that, of course, but it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be at all because we’re also at the same time, we’re doing irreparable damage to the coffers of this empire. 21 or so trillion dollars worth of debt and rising, rising, and no end in sight to that, either. But we’re also overplaying our hand militarily and we’re really making a lot of people in the world, including our allies and friends, begin to wonder at our sanity. SHARMINI PERIES: Now, as I said in the introduction, according to the constitution, only Congress has the power to declare war, and essentially as you’ve just said, Larry, for the last 16 years, the Congress have essentially abdicated those powers to the President. How is Congress responding to the fact that they have done this, and do they want those powers back? LARRY WILKERSON: I’m encouraged somewhat by my last two weeks on the hill, three days in each of those weeks, with both Republicans and Democrats. I find a lot of people willing, for example, to look at H.Con.Res.81 in the house, which would extract using the War Powers Resolution. US Code 50, Chapter 33, Section 1541 of 48, the War Powers Resolution codified into law, to get the United States out of that really brutal war in Yemen. The Yemeni look at that war not as Saudi Arabia/UAE’s war, but as our war. We’re the people waging that war against them. 500,000 people may die, cholera, starvation and so forth, but also, I’ve found this reawakening, if you will, amongst the house and the senate. Certain members anyway, about the War Power and about how the AUMF has been going on for so long. I even found a real interest, and you might expect this interest to have originated with this President, this regime, in stopping first use of nuclear weapons by passing a law that says that Congress must be consulted if the President conflates a first use of nuclear weapons. This would seem to be elementary to any American I think giving it any great deal of thought, because this is the ultimate weapon. It could start a conflagration and the Congress should by all means exercise its War Power with regard to a first use of such a weapon. So, while I don’t see these things passing anytime soon, because the military industrial complex still has so much influence on the House of Armed Services Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the different powers that be, that want these wars to continue, because they’re making enormous amounts of money off of them. They will lobby the Congress and try to keep this from happening but I am encouraged that at least the thought process is going on in the Congress. SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, some senators are saying that there ought to be another way to address the issue of the use of military force, that includes a discussion and debate in Congress. Since a senior congressman, some of them are now saying they were not even aware we were in Niger, what do you think needs to take place to ensure that we are within constitutional parameters? LARRY WILKERSON: I think it’s a bit disingenuous, of some Congress members anyway, to say they didn’t know. They didn’t know because they didn’t bother to listen, or they didn’t listen carefully when someone from the intelligence committees or otherwise was briefing them. There is a wide divergence, nonetheless, between those people who really understand our constitution in the Congress, and those people who frankly like I suggest to you, our President, haven’t even read the constitution, let alone know the specifics of Article 1, Section 8, where the War Power is carefully delineated by our founders. That said, this business about Iran is more about power than anything else. It’s more about Israel than perhaps even power, and it’s more about who will be the hegemon in the Gulf, and I would really like to see the Congress reign in the War Power and its use by the President in almost an indiscriminate manner. With respect to that, more than any other aspect of what’s happening right now, because I’m looking at what to me is the same sheet of music being sung off by many of the same characters who led us into that disastrous war in 2003, in Iraq. These people want regime change in Iran the same way they wanted regime change in Iraq, and they’re bound and determined to get it. So, your earlier question about Tillerson and Mattis and others making remarks about Iran and so forth, is spot on. Because that’s all a part of the warp and woof of building the American people up to the point where basically the hatred for the Persians and Iran, and our appreciation of that country is exactly the opposite of what it should be, and we’re willing to go to war with them. This is going to be one heck of a war, and Congress, whether it approves of it or not, it’s going to be irrelevant to the executive because the executive’s going to do it. Look at what President Obama did in Libya. President Obama didn’t even bother to whisper to the Congress that he was going to go drop bombs on Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, and we didn’t do a thing in Yemen, either, and President Obama was responsible for that. We just began to support the Saudis. This whole business of hatred for Iran on the one hand, which is being built up by the administration, and on the other hand, misuse, abuse of the War Power, is an extremely dangerous situation for this country. SHARMINI PERIES: Earlier this year, Larry, we had Tillerson, Mattis and even Kelly, all of them saying very measured things about Iran. Tillerson and Mattis no record saying as far as they’re concerned, Iran isn’t in compliance with the nuclear agreement and that this is a multilateral agreement, and we should tread lightly weighing these factors, but now the pressure’s on from the White House and Trump in particular, and of course, Netanyahu as well from Israel. So, now what we find Tillerson as well as Mattis toeing the line that the President is articulating, have you noticed these nuances and why is this happening? LARRY WILKERSON: Leaders of Mossad, of the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force, and certain political parties in Israel, have come out in opposition to Netanyahu, and in opposition to the idea that the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement with Iran, was a bad thing, once it was effected. Some of these people even fought to keep it being effected in the first place, but once it was effected, once you had all the different signatories, they changed their mind and said, “Now that we’re in it, we ought to stick with it because it does do some things for us.” So, that’s a bone of contention even to Israel. The bigger issue here I think that you suggested with these three generals, I have to back up a little bit on and say earlier you may recall I was fairly optimistic that they would in fact be a check and balance, if you will, on a rather irrational and totally inexperienced President. I’m not sure of that anymore, but I did say originally, and this is part of my concern now, that all three of them, McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly, are all exponents, advocates of practitioners of the empire. They’re all military practitioners of the empire, and as such, they bleed that the empire has to keep fighting these…on its periphery, even if it bankrupts them. I just read General Mattis’ memorandum out to the troops, so to speak. I was bowled over by it. There’s nothing in there about new strategic guidance, about cutting spending, about doing all the things the Defense Department really desperately needs to do. It’s just more of the same. More of the maintenance of empire, especially the empire on its peripheries. That’s bankrupting this country. It’s going to the end of this country if we’re not careful, so I’m no longer all that confident that these three men are the kinds of check on a very inexperienced, very apparently incoherent strategically President, as I once thought they might be. That’s, again, of some concern to me. Should be to every American. SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, before we go, can you give us a sense of Congress’ constitutional authority to declare war and how this has been exercised in our history, since you do teach military history? LARRY WILKERSON: Well, first thing you have to look at I think is the federalist papers, the anti-federalists, look at people even like Patrick Henry and George Mason but particularly look at Mattis and often called the father of the constitution, because Mattis has probably had more to do with writing the constitution than anyone else, and the person who has the pen has the power often. Their writings indicate that our founders were not just so alarmed about the military instrument in and of itself because it threatened constitutional government, and because of their experience watching Europe tear itself apart with monarchical armies constantly marching against one another. But also because they saw the War Power and all that it brought with it. The huge military complex around the War Power, the money around making war. You could even look at our revolutionary war, at how much money was made by certain members of the so-called patriot cast, and some of the shoddy products, for example, that they sold to the revolutionary soldiers. It started there. But they saw the incredible pernicious, perverse incentives that would be enwrapped in the War Power, and that’s why Madison said the War Power, in the executive’s hands, on a continual basis, without a check, is the surest way to tyranny. I think they were right. Hamilton has a brilliant paragraph where he talks about the need for this instrument and yet, the same time a need, a deep need for a cognizance of what this instrument can bring, and therefore an alert citizenry, an alert electorate, to what its prospects might be, and therefore able to check and balance it. Well, we’ve let the military instrument get completely out of hand. Frankly, we have let it get utterly and totally out of hand. We have let the military industrial complex that Eisenhower told us about, come to fruition in a way that even Eisenhower I don’t think would have predicted. When he said, “This is no way of life at all. This is under the threatening cloud of war. Humanity hanging on a cross of iron,” I don’t think he had any idea the cross of iron would be as tall and wide as it is today. The people like Kelly and Mattis and McMaster, they represent that cross of iron. So no matter how rational they are, no matter how good a strategic thinker they are, no matter how professional, full of integrity, high character they are, their profession is the profession of killing people for the state. That was my profession for 31 years. That’s a profession that one needs to be very careful about allowing to have so much influence on national decision-making, but we’ve let that happen, and that’s a very dangerous situation for us to be in. SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, I thank you so much for joining us today. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.