Corker-Kaine Bill Claims to Limit President’s War Powers, but Actually Expands Them

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Congress ‘lacks courage’ to assert its constitutional power to declare war. The Newly proposed Corker-Kaine Senate bill says it would regulate the president’s ability to wage war, but actually gives him more war powers, says Col. Larry Wilkerson

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. Last week Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia introduced a bill to the U.S. Senate that would give President Trump a new authorization to use military force. Critics say that this new authorization would expand the president’s power to wage war in an almost unlimited extent. The last time Congress passed and authorized the use of military force was in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attack on the U.S. That authorization has been used to wage wars in several countries, such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and several other countries, especially if you include the deployment of drone strikes.

Joining me to analyze the latest effort in Congress to address the war powers is Colonel Larry Wilkerson. Larry is a former chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell, and now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Thanks for being here today, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Good to be with you.

GREG WILPERT: So first of all, can you tell us what this Corker-Kaine bill says? On the surface it seems to reassert Congress’s power to authorize war. But is that what it really does?

LARRY WILKERSON: I think just one correction, if I’m right, and I may not be, but I think we also have an AUMF, an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, immediately preceding the second Iraq war. So that was the last time Congress did any sort of specifying as to its responsibility with regard to the war power. But as you implied with both the first one immediately after 9/11 and in that second one they really opened the door for the president to, as we’ve seen now, 17 straight years of war.

This effort that we’re talking about right now, the Corker-Kaine legislation, as I read it, as Kelly V lahos said in her article in The American Conservative, is not just giving the president a blank check. It’s opening the bank to the president. And I read it the same way. I’ve read a lot of congressional legislation that I thought was OK, and then later found out that, little did I know, that it had more negative consequences than positive. I think this is a similar type of legislation that, while Corker and Kaine, and Kaine I know in particular, are trying to rein in the president’s power to wage war and to reassert Congress’s power, this is no way to do it. This is, as Kelly implied in her article, opening the bank to the president. It’s just a recipe for the president to continue the so-called global war on terror, which his own secretary of defense has identified is not a priority. China, Russia, other great power competitors, they’re the priority.

This war on terror we spent $2-3 trillion to kill some 300-400 thousand people in the world. That ought to be enough. We are wasting incredible treasure, incredible time, incredible resources on a threat that has the likelihood of a lightning strike to kill one of us, has proven that statistically over the past 30-40 years. And it’s just, it’s nonsense. And now for the Congress to essentially open up Pandora’s box, open up the entire realm of possibilities for the president to pick anybody anywhere at any time, and to do it in secret. That’s another aspect of the legislation. As I read it, they can do a lot of this in secret. They don’t have to tell anybody, the Congress or the American people, that they’re doing anything. They’re doing that right now, of course. We’re killing people across state borders with the state with whom we’re not at war, a violation of international law. Clearly illegal. War crimes, possibly. But we’re doing it. And this is just legislation to essentially open it up even further, and it would require a two-thirds plus vote of the Congress to override a presidential veto. So we’re asking for the impossible in order to stop this legislation.

GREG WILPERT: Well, it sounds like basically it’s allowing the president to declare a war, essentially, and then telling Congress only that it can stop a war. Isn’t that kind of go against what the Constitution says the president’s, sorry, the Congress’s authority is supposed to be?

LARRY WILKERSON: Well, it certainly does. What it’s doing is saying to the president, you can use the war power any time you want to. You can use the armed forces, by the way, nobody cares about the armed forces, really. It’s only less than 1 percent of 330 million people. That’s the people who are bleeding and dying. And they come from Alabama, and they come from Mississippi, and they come from the interior of Maine, and Oklahoma, and so who cares. Who cares? We’ll go to the Atlanta airport and thank them for their service, but when they die or bleed or come home with post-traumatic stress it’s little skin off our back because we have no skin in the game.

We’re telling the president, use these armed forces and go bash anybody you want to any time you want to, and just tell us it has something to do with terrorism. That’s what we’re doing. And as I said, the only way to stop that once it gets started, once the president has done it, is to override his inevitable veto of whatever it is we say can’t do. So this is crazy. This is truly crazy. It’s not just the Constitution, either. It’s now that part of the Constitution that seemed a little ethereal to some, not to me, but to some, we codified into law in the War Powers Resolution, in U.S. Code Title 50 Chapter 33 Section 50, 41-48. But the Congress has no guts. It has no moral rectitude. It has no courage, political or personal. It will not rein in the executive branch with regard to the war power. I think we’ve seen that. Even with people who think they’re interested, who say they’re interested, like Tim Kaine, my senator from Virginia, they are not willing to do it. Not really.

GREG WILPERT: I think that kind of begs the question, what’s going on? I mean, why is there such a tremendous lack of courage to assert Congress’s authority to declare war? What’s going on? I mean, why, why, what are they so afraid of?

LARRY WILKERSON: Basically there are several things going on. One of them is political, and it is the fact that if the president uses the war power, if you kill somebody somewhere, if he goes to war with the country, even, the Congress can watch and see if it’s successful, and then cheer him. If it’s not successful, then they can jeer him, and they can accuse him of all kinds of perfidy.

So Congress has the best, best of all possible political worlds. They take no responsibility whatsoever until the facts are in. The second reason is money. Money, money, money. Why didn’t we strike Syria recently? Was it because we were trying to reassert our prerogatives with regard to Russia and Iran? Was it because Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons? Was it because of some other reason? I will tell you, it might have been any of those, but its secondary reason, its ancillary reason, if you will, is because Raytheon’s share price went up. Whenever you shoot these $1.2-1.6 million missiles in the density that we shot them, the amount that we shot them, you raise Raytheon’s share price, and therefore you raise the money that’s going to come into your political coffers from the defense industry. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, all those companies. They contribute majorly to people like Ed Royce, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Committee on International Affairs they call it now in the House. They contribute to all these people’s coffers, political action committees, and so forth.

So war is a very profitable thing, and as long as war is such a profitable thing you’re going to have more of it. You’re going to have Congress acquiescing in it.

GREG WILPERT: So ideally, if Congress were to actually have the courage to assert its powers, from what, from your perspective what would the process look like, let’s say, in a situation such as Syria, or in this situation, you know, in let’s say hypothetically if something happens in Iran. What would the procedure ideally look like?

LARRY WILKERSON: The first thing they should do is abrogate all present authorities. Just wipe them off the books. The president has no continuing authority to wage war other than that specified in the Constitution, which says, in essence, if the enemy’s on the shore, if the missile is in flight, if it’s imminent, then the president has the right to act swiftly and then consult the Congress. They should abrogate all other power to the president with regard to the war power entirely.

Then start over. Each singular incident, or multiple incident, in terms of crises, that comes up, the president has to go to the Congress, has to explain to the Congress, and through the Congress, the American people. That’s the reason the Constitution was written the way it was. The Founders thought the people should be informed, the people should decide on this critical issue of war. But the closest thing to the people is the Congress. You can’t ask 330 million people in any efficient or effective way, so you ask their representatives in the Congress. You go to the Congress and you say, this is what has happened. This is what I’m contemplating. I want you to approve it. I want you to fund it. Every single discrete incident has to be handled that way.

If there are multiple crises at the same time, China seeks an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, Russia invades Ukraine, Venezuela invades Texas, whatever it might be, and then you go to the Congress for each one. You don’t just give the president the power to use the military for anything he wants to use it for any time he wants to use it. This is called a monarchy. This is called tyranny. This is why we broke away from George III in the first place. We don’t need to go back there.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, we’ll leave it there for now. But I’m sure we’re going to come back to it as this bill moves through Congress, and might even pass. I was speaking to Colonel Larry Wilkerson, professor at College of William and Mary. Thanks again for talking to us, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.