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Forrest MacDonald

First of all, let’s agree on one important point: We are at war in Libya. All the niceties and all the casuistry aside, we are spending $100 million a day bombing and equipping and sending ground troops (yes, we are, folks–2500 Marines so far); enough to have already wiped out the Obama “stimulus” and put us back where we were economically in roughly July 2008. The same old tired reasons are given that we have heard ever since Korea, and the results will be the same.

I don’t want to get into all that, however. This is really a response to the dispute between Brad Birzer and Steve Hollingshead over the powers of the President to have so involved us in one more place without a declaration of war or even specific Congressional authorization. It’s an issue that is bigger than either of them have yet admitted, it goes to the heart of the Presidency, and it is out of control.The best book yet written on the office is Forrest McDonald’s The American Presidency: An Intellectual History (University Press of Kentucky, 1994). I refer to it as the framework of ideas that encourages us to understand what “Commander-in-Chief” might mean, and how it relates to the current situation in the African desert.

Forrest makes the important point that those who argued against the adoption of the Constitution almost always included the great potential danger of a commander-in-chief who could use that exact concept to abrogate the liberties the document was supposedly there to protect. It didn’t happen right away, but Jefferson and Madison set the precedents for Presidential interventionism that has never had many intervals between its use. Consider this remarkable fact: “On five occasions Congress declared war [the last time was 1941]…whereas American fighting men were sent to fight in foreign climes on more than 200 occasions.” We can add five or six more since that was written. Overall, in undeclared wars we have killed over two million enemies and have lost at least 100,000 American lives. The wars have all been justified one way or another, despite some sticky times such as the passage of the War Powers Act of 1973, which (and this is my editorial comment, not McDonald’s) has made no difference whatsoever in the President’s ability to act. By the way, these undeclared wars have been utterly bipartisan. First conclusion, then: President Obama is acting in Libya exactly as at least 20 other Presidents acted. Given that great tradition, he is unlikely to have to answer for what many of us think are serious violations of our republican heritage.

Forrest also points out that the commander-in-chief powers are hardly separable by now from the President’s war powers, on which the Constitution is inexplicit. Beginning with Lincoln, reaching a crescendo with FDR (who had almost literal dictatorial powers during World War II), and still operative, the Constitution means very, very little under the emergencies created by both declared and undeclared wars.

He tells the priceless story about Lyndon Johnson taking a wrong turn to walk toward Air Force One, and a young soldier in the escort saying, “Sir, Mr. President, your plane is over there,” to which LBJ replied, “Son, I want to tell you something–just so you never forget….All of them–those over there and those over here–are my planes.” Well, a couple of hundred of President Obama’s million-dollar Tomahawk missiles–and they are all his–have gone into Libya so far.

We will get no where arguing the constitutional meaning of Commander-in-Chief, however. That must be dealt with by legislative means or with a constitutional amendment. The short term response to this immoral, imprudent, expensive war is to vote against anybody from any party who gives even a nod of approval. And be ready for the War Party to call you an “isolationist.”

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23 replies to this post
  1. Hyperbole aside, the War Powers Resolution, passed by congress, allows the President 60 days (+30 for withdrawal) of military action without further authorization or declaration of war.

  2. Thanks, Joe, for elaborating on just what I said about the War Powers Act. Remember, it has not prevented one single undeclared war or act of war by one single President. By the way, would you point out the "hyperbole?"

  3. You seemed to be saying that the purpose of the War Powers Resolution was only to prevent military acts by the President. It was designed to allow the President to initiate military acts without a declaration of war. For good reason.

    In some circumstances, time is of essence. Lives and/or strategic advantage can be lost if quick action is not taken.

    Hyperbole: "the War Party"

  4. Speaking for myself, I want a war for cheaper coffee. Most Libyan oil goes to Europe anyway, although more Tomahawks blowing up Libya = more economic stimulus for Boeing right here in my backyard (assuming our Dear Leader is willing to replenish stockpiles).

    But back to the point: Coffee beans are getting more expensive and I'm outraged. Resorting to Folgers rations is not an option. Plenty of ego-maniacal dictators right here in our own hemisphere, so why not start closer to home?

    Yes, I realize this comment contributed absolutely nothing to the substance of the conversation, but it's 4:30pm on a Friday and the sun is shining whilst I'm stuck in an office…

  5. John, excellent. Thank you for this. Of course, if we take your post at face value, the republic is long gone. As to the War Party–thank you for speaking the truth. Joe, what is one man's hyperbole is another man's good writing.

  6. Actually, the War Powers Act was passed as an anti-Nixon measure. He vetoed it, Congress passed it again over his veto. It is clearly unconstitutional, only needing to be challenged, but still hasn't stopped a single intervention. And would you agree, then, if "War Party" is hyperbole, that "isolationism" also hyperbole? I've never heard one of us say that we should retreat behind shields and trade with nobody; on the other hand, I hear almost every day the same crowd say, with Marcus Cato, "Methinks Carthage ought utterly to be destroyed."

    Yes, Brad, in this respect the republic is long gone, to return only when the empire is dismantled. When you look at the embassy complex we are building in Baghdad, think about how likely that is.

  7. I am more confused than ever. John Willson writes that we're at war in Libya for "the same old tired reasons…that we have heard ever since Korea." I didn't know that Libyans eat dogs: let's flatten' 'em. Then John Barnes says we are (or should be) fighting for coffee, while a quite frequent correspondent on this topic – who is named after coffee (Joe) – is mysteriously silent on the mocha-java issue. Just when I'd fixed a large cocktail and written off the conspiracy-theory to a hard week at work, Brad Birzer (gimlet-eyed, misses nothing) points out the Obama/Brazil/coffee/Libya connection. Isolationism, that's what we need. Isolationism, a real Republic and a small pitcher of stiff drinks.

  8. Mr. Birzer: "Joe, what is one man's hyperbole is another man's good writing."

    Definitely true. Some people think that Al Franken is great.

    Mr. Wilson: "Actually, the War Powers Act was passed as an anti-Nixon measure."

    Whoever prompted it, it provides for the President to act without congressional approval, at least on a defined scope. All it does is define a process that involves congress for when interventions are deemed necessary. So, to me, it doesn't make sense to characterize it as failing to prevent any interventions. It's not an anti-intervention resolution.

    "And would you agree, then, if "War Party" is hyperbole, that "isolationism" also hyperbole?"

    At least in the ways I've seen it used, "War Party" is an exaggeration of a position. Isolationism is a position of non-intervention and protectionist economic policy.

    If you are a non-interventionist but not a protectionist, you could argue that calling your position isolationist is only half right.

    Do you object to US involvement in WWII?

  9. To Drs. Birzer and Willson:

    Anonymous "Joe" (I don't have any idea why he doesn't have a first and last name like the rest of us) is sensitive to terms like "war party." He says it’s an exaggeration. Poppycock. Let’s go ahead and add “interventionist” and “lover of foreign adventure” for good measure. “Joe” does not like it because it accurately describes his approach to using the military of the American Republic to implement regime change in foreign lands. In other conversations on this site,"Joe" has demonstrated that he is open to spending American blood and treasure anytime he feels that people in a foreign country are “oppressed” or their leader is a “tyrant” or “dictator.”

    In his comments on this site “Joe” has said regarding the $1,300,000,000,000 spent on Iraq and Afghanistan (so far and beyond normal military spending): “Relative to the amount of money the US government spends, 1.3 trillion for 10 years of military operations is not that much.” And regarding our dead (over 6,000) and wounded (over 33,000) soldiers from those wars “Joe” had this to say: “Nobody ‘has ‘to sacrifice. It's an all-volunteer military.” Clearly these are not conservative statements. He did express concern about Iraqis killed by the Hussein regime, which is thoughtful of him. Well “Joe,” I am an American. My primary concern, and responsibility, is for American interests, American soldiers and American citizens. I am not a citizen of the “world.” That term has no meaning in this context of relations between nations and war.

    And “Joe” has also thrown around the term “isolationism” before on this site. His sensitivity to exaggerated descriptions of policy positions only applies to his own “war party” views. His sensitivity disappears when misrepresenting conservative policy views. Now he adds that: “Isolationism is a position of non-intervention and protectionist economic policy.” Funny thing is none of us (Birzer, Willson, Elliott) have advocated non-intervention and/or protectionist positions on this site while “Joe” has advocated using the U.S. war machine to bring about regime change where he deems it necessary to oust foreign leaders/dictators he wants removed. Well I am glad to avoid calling this a “war party” position. I will call it what it is, lunacy.

    Before “Joe” starts calling me an “isolationist” again let me state my position clearly (as I have before on this site) and with my full name attached. W. Winston Elliott III says: I don't believe in isolationism. However, I do believe that prudence demands we count the costs of our actions, especially so that we learn from the past and may make better decisions in the future. Certainly 6,000 U.S. dead, 33,000 wounded, and $1.3 trillion is a very high cost indeed. 
Is it not legitimate to ask was it worth it?

    Should we have stayed in Afghanistan for almost 10 years after we destroyed the terrorist training camps we went there for? Are we so much more enamored with the new political structure in Iraq (voting followed by chaos and violence) over the old system (dictatorship followed by repression and violence)? 

Is it truly a conservative position to go beyond punishing the terrorists, and destroying their camps, with a 10 year attempt to remake Afghan political culture in our own image? This has all the signs of going from justified military action to hubris on a grand scale.

    Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet, and other notable conservatives, have expressed great concern that centralization and militarization have been the greatest threats to preservation of the principles of the American Republic. They were not isolationists. They were true patriots who wished to guard against taking actions to destroy the enemy that may simultaneously lead to undermining the ordered liberty we claim to fight to preserve.

    (continued in next comment…)

  10. (continued from previous comment)

    I am for taking military action against those who clear evidence indicates threaten the safety of our Republic and its citizens. But, does this necessitate a permanent military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan? How about Germany, South Korea and Japan? Is there no end to this? If not, I fear that we must (as Brad Birzer has suggested on this site) admit that the Republic is lost and that we fight to defend a democratic empire. 

“Joe”, my policy is to act upon American security interests, not a policy that makes us feel good by replacing foreign dictators with a “whatever replaces them will probably be better” policy. And regarding situations where foreign enemies threaten the United States my policy is simple: I say kill the enemy and come home. Don't move into his house and call it defense.

    What about Afghanistan where terrorists were training to attack Americans? It was necessary to go in and take out the terrorists training camps and to make clear to the government of the country we would not tolerate them harboring terrorists. But, did this necessitate moving in for the next 10 years? I say no. Nation building in the Middle East is not a conservative approach. It is radical and expensive. Not to mention deadly. 

    Will “Joe,” and his fellow interventionists, admit that the militarization of the Republic is a bad thing and that wars in two foreign nations simultaneously, for almost 10 years have massively increased the power of the national government? Must we wage war in, and establish permanent military bases in, every nation where dictators oppress their citizens? Is this the work of a republic or an empire? Every empire had humanitarian or security reasons, to go along with economic ones, to justify permanent military occupation.

    I will say this again. When the real interests of Americans are threatened then to use military force is permitted. Kill those who plan to kill us. Destroy their bases. When necessary, go back and do it again. That is prudent application of military force against the enemy. It is not pacifism or isolationism. 

Just don't occupy foreign nations for decades, longer than WWI and WWII combined. This is foolishness. And I don't believe it is conservative.

    Lastly I will say this to those who wish to send American soldiers into battle to implement regime change in foreign nations when the national interests of our nation are not directly threatened: my son is a combat arms officer in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. I take the use of military force very seriously and I take it personally. I accept a policy that may end up getting my son wounded or killed (I pray this does not happen) in order to defend our nation. I despise the idea of him paying such a price for a plan for "democracy in the Middle East."

    All I ask for, beg for, is a prudent use of our military. Never one drop of blood for an American empire. Kill our enemies, destroy their bases and bring our boys home. I believe it is conservative to choose protecting American lives over a goal of changing the culture and politics of foreign nations.

  11. Four small points.

    1. The slime about Al Franken was probably uncalled for.

    2. Winston's post represents a position that all conservatives should take, and I commend it.

    3. "Isolationism" does not have such a precise definition, and never has. It was a term that FDR's interventionist New Dealers used to ridicule their opponents.

    4. Ah, the old "I've got you now because nobody can criticize the Great War or the Greatest Generation' canard. Well, until December 6, 1941 about 80-90% of Americans were against "involvement" in WWII. The question is a very complex one, not answerable by the usual New Deal formulas; but I will say this: our involvement under a New Deal leadership was terribly unfortunate.

  12. Willson.

    1. I don't know. I think that using the term "War Party" kind of is calling for something like that. I have thick skin. I really don't mind the "War Party" thing, which is why I wrote "Hyperbole aside…"

    I do find it comforting that we're in agreement that allusions to Al Franken aren't nice.

    2. I disagree. But, I think that there is room for diversity within the sphere of conservative thought. I respect that most people calling themselves conservatives probably have more to agree about than to disagree.

    3. Yes. As with most political labels, the term has a long, shifting etymology. However, I think that my criteria is where it has currently landed. I believe that most people would define it the way that I have.

    4. It wasn't a canard. Just a simple question to try and understand your position. Specifically, whether or not there is any military intervention at all that you accept.

    If popular support is the barometer for whether or not the US should intervene, we shouldn't have helped in WWII and we should be in Libya right now since the majority approve according to polls.

    I'm not fond of the New Deal either. But, I don't see what it has to do with intervening in WWII. It was domestic policy. We could have still intervened while pursuing a different domestic policy.

  13. I didn't think this was a war, I thought it was kinetic military action.

    I'm with you on the fact that we shouldn't be in Libya though. Just imagine how many wars we would be in if Obama hadn't won the nobel peace prize.

    Interesting post though, so (hypothetically speaking) if America were to all of a sudden be nuked, or bombed, would you want to wait until Congress had the time to meet/debate/declare an act of war?

  14. Good point, Pope. The last time Congress declared war it took about 24 hours after we actually were attacked. In the meantime, since FDR had been gearing up for war for over two years, and since nobody can imagine an attack on us that we would not respond to, the resources were in operation even before the official declaration. In other words, I think it's not a problem. We have a real problem this time, because Obama, the citizen of the world, didn't even think to go to Congress–only to the small failed states forum of the UN.

  15. I see that some other comments were put through. Did my comment from last night not make it? Please explain if there is some reason for not showing my comment.

    If dissenting views aren't allowed, I won't spend my time participating. Just let me know. The long responses and welcoming of vigorous discussion led me to believe it was ok.

  16. Joe,

    Since I have no email address for you I will make a one time exception and answer your direct inquiry here.

    Not all comments we receive are published. Since comments on TIC are subscribed to by a significant number of readers who are interested in learning about and/or discussing traditional conservative thought, I have a duty to them to exercise my judgement as to whether submitted comments, just like posts, add to our discussion. If I believe a comment is repetitive, or does not positively contribute to discussion in the Imaginative Conservative community, I do not publish it.

    I strive to be generous in these decisions but, in the end, it is my responsibility to moderate the discussion. Dissenting views are most often published. However, TIC's mission is to encourage discussion of conservative views in the tradition of Kirk, Burke, Eliot, Nisbet, Dawson, and their like. A preference will always be given to discussion from this perspective and alternative approaches, while certainly given an opportunity to be heard, will not be given the opportunity to expound without limit.

    In this way TIC discussions are an example of ordered liberty as opposed to liberty without order which becomes license.

    Of course TIC also does not publish comments viewed as offensive or that lack civility. We often engage in vigorous discussions on TIC and disagreement among participants is expected. However, there is a line between thoughtful disagreement and being disagreeable.

    I hope that answers your question. I appreciate your concern regarding spending time writing comments that don't get published. In your particular case I believe that, while I have vigorously disagreed with your views, you have been given ample opportunity to express them and have been given thoughtful and serious replies.

    On a practical note some of your submitted comments have ended up in the Blogger "spam" box. I don't know why as they do so automatically and we don't set the criteria. That has delayed their publication. As of now there are no further comments awaiting approval. Thank you for your participation.

    For our readers:

    I do not normally respond to such questions in a comment as it is a poor use of our reader's time to discuss process issues but having no email for Joe there was not an alternative other than ignoring his inquiry. I apologize to the rest of you for this "inside baseball" time out and we now return you to your regularly scheduled Imaginative Conservative programming.

  17. Joe, most people probably would agree with your silly definition of isolation. That just means they are also silly.

    I have a politically incorrect way of asking why you interventionists (notice I didn't say War Party) will never face up to a very basic question: Would you tell me, by name, the young people you are willing to have die for your abstractions? I want you to name one, or fifty, or five thousand men and women, volunteers or not that you would be willing to say, "I want you to die for this thing that I think is right." Name them. Name one. If you cannot, then don't bring up this discussion again.

  18. Willson.

    In some cases, a lot of people certainly can be silly. However, when it comes to political labels, it's not unreasonable for a person to use one of them according to the commonly accepted definition rather than some out-dated one.

    Your naming-people-to-die idea is a false dilemma. Accepting the reasons for a military intervention does not require naming people who have to die. Everyone in the effort should try not to die but has accepted for themselves, going in, that it is a possibility. The people that might die for this country and have accepted that willingly are quite capable of giving you their names directly. And there are a lot of such people in this country.

    Additionally, history suggests that leaving tyrants unchecked can allow bloodshed to continue, their power to grow and other tyrants to be emboldened. So, your question could easily be turned back to you in the form of: "Can you name twice as many people as I that you want to die as a result of inaction?"

  19. Mr. Pope asks: "Just imagine how many wars we would be in if Obama hadn't won the Nobel peace prize." Very funny: I choked on my coffee! Terry Southern observed that satire became impossible after Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.

  20. Joe,

    I still have no email for you so I can't give you a direct response to your follow up question. The comment you sent with a "blogger" profile did arrive. But, the profile is not "publicly shared" so I could not ascertain an email address by viewing that profile. I will not write anymore comment responses, or publish comments, which are actually direct inquiries to the editor which should be communicated through email not through the site. This is the last post I will make on this topic. Period.

  21. Joe,

    Look at Russell Kirk's quotation of Orwell, about the "stream-lined men who think in slogans and talk with bullets." The novelist Louis Auchincloss wrote a few years ago that he had argued that if only his classmates at Yale could rule the world he would be happy. The problem was, he said, that they did.

    The "commonly accepted one?" Gee, does that mean "pro-choice?" "Diversity?" A hundred other stupid non-sequiters? You see, I'm an old-fashioned guy, one who won't let you call me names or accept "commonly accepted" definitions.

    "False dilemma?" Individuals die, Joe, not abstractions that you call "volunteers." No kid of 18 thinks he can die. But ask the ones who hold them in their arms if they are volunteers. The old men and women who make policy are the ones who must ask themselves if they are willing to look their sons in the eye and say, I'm willing to sacrifice you for my cause, and I'm also willing to make you believe that my cause is just and right even though at 18 you cannot possibly understand it.

    Your's is the false dilemma. How can you know that "inaction" will claim more lives than aggression? "History suggests" is the biggest lie of all, used almost always by people who have not read history. I really wonder, for example, how many Vietnam vets think that the 58,000+ of their buddies (who, by the way, were not "volunteers") would say, "Oh, what the hell, they died so that I could brag that twice as many would have died if they hadn't?"

    I can name thousands of men and women who DIDN'T die as a result of inaction. I can't name one who did. If you want to justify the Libya war or any other, do it at least honestly. When the Romans and the Brits built their empires, it was at least without hypocrisy. They simply said that they could improve the world by killing everybody who opposed them, and were willing to do it. It took a long time, but in the end they both got what they deserved.

  22. Willson.

    It's a term. Not an argument. Why do you feel that it's name-calling if it accurately refers to your position on foreign policy?

    Nobody needs to look anyone in the eye and ask them if they should die in order to both take war seriously and accept reasons for a military intervention. It's a false dilemma argument.

    I'm not claiming to know that inaction will claim more lives in every case. That you often can't know for certain doesn't mean that a decision isn't necessary or that a person can't thoroughly and seriously consider all options. It just means that the office of commander-in-chief and the powers of congress are an enormous responsibility.

    "History suggests" is a reference to evidence. Not "a lie" or a credentials pissing contest. And I'm not sure where you're getting the idea that the reason people go to war is for bragging rights. Certainly not from me. Regarding Vietnam, I think that there is a lot to criticize about how it was carried out. Why we got involved, however, is justifiable.

    Your last argument can also be turned back toward your position. How do you know the thousands of people you can name that didn't die wouldn't be dead if not for military interventions? A lot of people thought that Nazi Germany was only a European problem. It didn't take long for that to escalate to a much larger problem.

    If Hussein had not been confronted at any point, who knows how many people he would have killed by now and into the future? Who knows what type of power and weapons he would have produced and used, exported to terrorists, etc.?

    More hyperbole: empire.

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