When members of the U.S. military take the oath of service, we swear to “support and defend the Constitution…[and] bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” I made this promise some 30 years ago when I joined the Marine Corps and later the Army National Guard.
My oath to defend the Constitution would come to define my life as I fulfilled that commitment in Somalia in 1992, ground zero on September 11, 2001, and later in Iraq and Afghanistan. I, along with all those who served before and after me, put my life and body up as collateral in support of that oath.
Members of Congress take a similar oath when they are sworn into office, promising the same support, defense, true faith, and allegiance to the Constitution. But in their case, the responsibility is regularly ignored or violated, at the expense of those of us who uphold our oath.
The Constitution defines the unique roles Congress and the president are to play in foreign policy, especially in matters of war and peace.
Congress has the sole authority to declare war—perhaps the most important vote a member can ever take. This solemn responsibility alongside congressional authority over federal revenues and spending, was specifically assigned to a deliberative bicameral legislature. The founders intended this as a barrier to war and to tyranny. They were certain a unified executive with unfettered ability to engage in warfare would lead down a road to dictatorship.
Yet the Founders also understood the prudence of a unified executive for both ‘domestic tranquility’ and for efficient conduct of war when circumstance called for it. Thus, they named the president the ‘commander in chief.’
As commander in chief of what was originally intended to be a small military, the president was and remains authorized to respond to genuine national security emergencies with military force.
When I raised my right hand to join the Marine Corps in 1991, such an understanding of U.S. civics was common to my generation and to those who served before us. It was also obvious even then that over two centuries, a hundred congresses, forty presidencies and dozens of wars, that these basic constitutional prescriptions were being stretched beyond recognition.
From the unauthorized early 20th century ‘banana wars’ in Latin America to the ‘police action’ in Korea, the executive branch has regularly overstepped its constitutional boundaries. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing military force in Vietnam was a radical change, authorizing but not technically declaring war.
Today, Congress has largely abandoned its role in constraining executive war making, but also refuses to take the responsibility on. The two Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMFs) Congress passed to authorize the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2002 are still on the books and have been cited to justify military engagement far beyond their original intent. Worse, despite a broad bipartisan coalition inside and outside of Congress supporting a re-balancing of Congressional war powers, repeal of either the 2001 or 2002 AUMFs has been repeatedly stymied by the current political environment.
Meanwhile, the last four presidents have sent our young men and women into combat in Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere across the globe all with neither clear congressional authorization nor compelling arguments for emergencies of national interest.
In the coming weeks and months, Congress will take up the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a bill which must pass in order to fund the military, its personnel, and its ongoing operations. This bill is the perfect opportunity for Congress to do its job and include repeals of the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs—which less than a fifth of our sitting legislators have ever voted on.
This month marks 20 years since the 2002 AUMF was signed, leading to the disastrous war in Iraq. As we look back on that date and the years of death and devastation that followed, what better time than now for we the people to insist on a restoration of proper war power responsibilities – Congress should be voting on whether to declare war when necessary and appropriate, while the president should be making a clear case for why military action is vital to our national interests.
That is what the Founders intended, and that is what is owed to our brave men and women who upheld their oath of service.
John Byrnes is deputy director for Concerned Veterans for America and a Marine Corps and Army National Guard combat veteran who served multiple tours in Africa and the Middle East.