Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. (Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)
Any real advocate for ending the war should ‘vote against this monstrosity’

The best part of any debate is when you see people twisting themselves in knots, going against their own alleged principles to get their desired results. 

Today, the subject is war powers. The hawks and neocons somehow want you to believe, in contrast to all logic, that the President of the United States has the unitary power to go to war anytime he wants, anywhere, free from interference from Congress. That’s their stated position anytime war comes up.

Yet, they now say a President cannot leave a war without their permission. How absurd is that? It’s exactly the opposite of what both the constitution and logic would dictate.

When Congress tried to impose time limits on troop engagements during the Iraq War, the neocons squawked that it would be a mistake to have 535 generals. During the Bush administration, Dick Cheney and a team of legal apologists argued for something called ‘the unitary executive theory.’

Professor Edelson at American University describes this theory of an all-powerful commander in chief concept as claiming to justify effectively unchecked presidential power over the use of military force, the detention and interrogation of prisoners, extraordinary rendition, and intelligence gathering. 

According to the unitary executive theory, since the Constitution assigns the president all of the “executive power,” he can set aside laws that attempt to limit his power over national security. This is enormous: critics say that it effectively puts the president above the law. 

Now these same people who advocated for virtually unlimited commander in chief powers have put forth limits to restrain a president from removing troops from a country.

Effectively, these neocons put forth a belief that the commander in chief has virtually unlimited powers to initiate wars but they are just fine with hamstringing and preventing the commander in chief from ending a war.

Hypocrisy, anyone? Without a shred of embarrassment they happily constrain a President from leaving a war theater while simultaneously advocating for the White House to start war anytime, anywhere across the globe without Congressional authorization.

Our founding fathers would be appalled. Primary among our founders’ concerns was that the power to initiate war not be in the hands of one person. As Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers: The executive is the branch of government most likely to commit us to war. Therefore, the constitution with studied care vested the war power in the legislature.

To our founders, initiation of war was the sole prerogative of Congress. But a great deal of discretion was given to the President in Article II to execute the war. Likely, our founders would have agreed with the common complaint that we don’t need 535 generals. In other words, success in war requires most decisions on executing the war to be in the hands of one person, the President.

So, the decision to go to war requires the consensus of 535 members of Congress, or under the Constitution, it’s supposed to require a formal declaration of war by Congress. But, the execution of the war would largely be left up to the President.

Countless current and former members of Congress have agreed.

Representative Liz Cheney has argued that “the nature of military and foreign policy demand the ‘unity of the singular Executive,’” and that the Founders “certainly did not intend, nor does history substantiate, the idea that Congress should legislate specific limits on the President’s powers” in wartime. 

Senator Lindsey Graham said “the one thing he has been consistent on” is that “there is one Commander-in-Chief, not 535, and I believe this Commander-in-Chief and all future commanders-in-chief are unique in our Constitution and have an indispensable role to play when it comes to protecting the homeland. If we have 535 commanders in chief, then we are going to be less safe.”

The late Senator John McCain said, “it would be a very serious situation where we are now 535 commanders in chief… the President of the United States is the only commander.”

Senator James Inhofe, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said “we don’t need the 535 generals in Congress telling our troops how to win this fight” in reference to the Iraq war. 

And of course, former Vice President Dick Cheney was adamant that the War Powers Resolution, which requires the President to report to Congress on matters of war, was unconstitutional as “an infringement on the president’s authority as the commander in chief.”

Senator Lamar Alexander also said, “there is a reason why we don’t have 535 commanders in chief or 100 commanding generals each saying charge down this street or over that hill.”

Until recently, this chorus of voices sang of nothing but the almighty, endless powers that Presidents had as Commander in Chief. That is until a President arrived on the scene who wanted to reduce overseas troop levels and end America’s longest war in Afghanistan.

Then the promoters of a strong commander in chief suddenly jumped ship and began advocating that 535 members of Congress should indeed become generals and limit the President’s ability to remove troops from Afghanistan.

Shouldn’t we call out hypocrisy? Shouldn’t someone stand up and expose this rank demagoguery? Shouldn’t someone cry foul that those advocating for unlimited commander in chief power want it only to apply when that President advocates for war?

But the moment a President advocates to end war or lessen overseas troop deployments, he or she must be shackled by 535 generals.

This Defense Authorization Bill could more aptly be entitled A Bill to Prevent the President from Ending the Afghan War.

As such, any serious advocate for ending the Afghan War should vote against this monstrosity. The neocon advocates for unlimited Presidential war powers should own up to their hypocrisy and admit that their love of perpetual war trumps their oft-stated Unitary Executive Theory.

In reality, the neocons are enamored of their theory of unbounded Presidential power only when that power is used to foment war. The minute a President decides to end war, their true stripes are exposed as they beat their chests and proclaim, as 535 generals might, that the President will not be allowed to remove troops without Congressional permission.

This bill sets a very dangerous precedent for limiting a President’s power to end war and should be vigorously opposed.

This is an adaptation, with permission, of the Senator’s remarks on the US Senate floor, Thursday Dec. 10, 2020.