COMMENTARY | Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is on a press tour following the publication of his memoirs, which contain controversial criticism of president Barack Obama and his administration. Gates, notable for being Secretary of Defense under two presidents of opposing political parties, Democratic incumbent Barack Obama and Republican predecessor George W. Bush, oversaw U.S. wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Some have asserted that Gates’ criticism of a sitting president with whom he worked until only recently was inappropriate, but Gates’ latest comments may provoke even more ire. According to TIME , Gates spoke at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast and said that Congress should have declared war on Iraq prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Prodded by TIME, Gates said that Congress should not be allowed to take a back seat to difficult decisions like sending troops into combat. After all, the last time Congress declared war was in 1941! All subsequent conflicts, from Korea through Iraq and Afghanistan, have been executive actions. Many have criticized presidents’ abilities to send American troops into combat at a moment’s notice and worry about ongoing, ever-changing micro-wars in global hot spots being used for political gain.
These critics would welcome forcing Congress to take a stand. Forced to take responsibility for sending troops into combat, Congress would only allow use of force as a last resort, preventing wars of aggression and imperialism. With more “skin in the game” Congress would make better choices, ultimately saving taxpayers money and keeping more young Americans alive.
But what are the downsides to forcing Congress to declare war before U.S. troops can be deployed?
First, the wheels of democracy turn slowly. Sometimes, too slowly. Many geopolitical conflicts occur rapidly, particularly with modern technology. An aggressor, using armor and air units, can overrun a helpless neighbor quickly, often before Congress can convene and come to any sort of consensus. Though I want to avoid hawkish wars of aggression and imperialism, I do appreciate the need for speed in times of crisis. Requiring Congress to declare war before U.S. troops can be deployed may mean a war already lost, dooming an ally or helpless victim to defeat.
Second, a declaration of war can be abused and should only be reserved for conflicts that truly threaten America’s domestic safety and territorial integrity. A declaration of war gives the government tremendous power and authority to engage in censorship, surveillance, and curtailment of citizen rights. Declaring war over frequent small conflicts could lead to a perpetual state of excessive government control, with a “we’re at war” mentality allowing permanent censorship. The public should have the right to criticize U.S. military intervention. Only in the most extreme circumstances should such right to criticism and protest ever be curtailed.
Third, the commander-in-chief should always be the main focus in regard to military affairs, not Congress. While we dislike Congress being able to “sidestep” responsibility for wars, it is worse for the president being able to do the same. Congressional declarations of war could become an excuse for a president to later distance himself from a war, claiming that it was not a war of his or her choosing and that he or she did not have ultimate authority in regard to declaring war.
Fourth, given the struggles Congress has regarding domestic affairs, should any more responsibilities be heaped on this gridlocked legislature? Though Congress should be able to handle the task of having to declare war or decide against it, I fear that our nation’s incompetent Congress would fail the task. The struggle over deciding whether or not to declare war could derail Congress’ entire agenda, both foreign and domestic, and leave the nation in worse shape.