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Jewish World Review May 7, 1999 /21 Iyar 5759

David Corn

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Missing In Action

(JWR) ---- (
IN A TRUE LIFE-AND-DEATH MATTER, Congress last week demonstrated a lack of seriousness.

During one stretch of debate, the GOP-led House voted not to declare war on Yugoslavia, not to terminate the bombing, not to permit President Clinton to introduce ground troops without congressional authority and not to approve the bombing campaign. So what then does the House stand for? The votes were forced by California Rep. Tom Campbell, a moderate Republican who believes Congress shouldn’t shirk its constitutional duty to decide whether war should be waged, but the Republican leadership did not want to put their party on the line.

The GOP would not denounce the bombing or support the air strikes. Its bottom-line: When it’s ground-troops time, we’ll come up with a position; until then, don’t bother us.

While the Republicans ducked, the Democrats covered. Led by Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, the Democrats tried to come to Clinton’s rescue and pushed a measure that backed the bombing campaign. They failed on a tie, 213 to 213. Nearly nine out of 10 Democrats voted for the legislation; only 31 Republicans sided with them. When the Republicans offered the bill requiring congressional approval for the use of ground troops, eight of 10 Democrats voted nay. So once the fog (partially) cleared the lines were drawn: The Republicans, who don’t mind an unauthorized bombing campaign, don’t want Clinton to go farther without their permission, and the Democrats, with the exception of a couple dozen progressives (who are becoming increasingly skeptical about this military intervention) and a few isolation-inclined conservatives, are willing to let Clinton run this little war as he fancies.

An intriguing constitutional brouhaha is shaping up. Under the War Powers Resolution, the President has 60 days from when he deploys the military in hostile circumstances to receive Congress’ okay. That can come in a declaration of war or a reasonable facsimile. If Congress does not provide its consent, the President is obligated to withdraw the forces. Within that 60-day period, Congress can vote to force the President to pull out (that’s what Campbell tried to do, and lost).

But if Congress does nothing explicit, the President’s war is supposed to end by the 60-day mark.

The Kosovo clock is ticking: The 60 days expires at the end of May and the Clintonites, who once promised that less than a week of airstrikes would tame Slobodan Milosevic, are now talking about an extended-run bombing campaign that would stretch into the summer. (Have they started worrying yet about the Y2K bug and the war effort?) So what might happen if the House in the next four weeks does not vote to approve the aerial assault? Will Clinton abide by the law and shut down the bombing?

There’s not much precedent for this situation. President George Bush won votes in Congress before taking on Iraq. The mini-wars in Panama and Grenada were turkey shoots, finished within the 60 days. White House lawyers are no doubt preparing various arguments. They might assert that because Campbell’s resolution to terminate the bombing was rejected, the House didn’t not tell the President to stop. (The Senate’s already passed a resolution supporting the bombing.)

They might point to congressional approval of spending for the Kosovo operation as all the permission that is needed. (“Spending is not authority,” argues Michael Ratner, an attorney at the left-leaning Center for Constitutional Rights and a specialist on the War Powers Resolution. Ratner, who has been consulting with Campbell and the House Democrats opposed to the Kosovo war, maintains that since Congress failed to say yes to the bombing, Clinton has no authority to continue the strikes.) Or the Clinton mouthpieces might challenge the 1973 War Powers Resolution, a measure previous administrations have tried to wiggle around.

War is the most extreme action of government. The drafters of the Constitution purposefully inconvenienced the commander-in-chief by handing Congress the power to declare war, and the War Powers Resolution, a Vietnam War offshoot no doubt supported by Clinton at the time, sets up strict rules for the use of force abroad. Will Clinton flout the rule of law if Congress fails to authorize the bombing? Might the don’t-ask-us House Republicans not authorize the bombing but, subsequently, ignore Clinton’s violation of the War Powers Resolution? In Washington, what provokes the greater outrage: lying about sex or not following the law that governs war? That question may soon be answered.

Exporting War

In railing above about the right’s narrow conception of the “culture of death,” I noted that cons who preach values politics don’t get riled by U.S. weapons sales to thuggish and violent governments abroad. Last week, a Washington group called Demilitarization for Democracy released a report noting that in 1997 the United States sold $8.3 billion in weapons to nondemocratic nations. That year, the Clinton administration also set a record for worldwide military sales: $21.3 billion. And more than a third of the 208 combat exercises conducted by the Pentagon with foreign troops involved training forces in countries that are not democracies.

“In Algeria, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, and in the Kurdish areas of Turkey,” the study says, “recipients of U.S. military support used U.S. arms and training in internal conflicts and repression.” In the name of humanitarian intervention, should the European Union—which last year passed a code restricting arms sales to dictators and human rights abusers—blockade the United States to prevent weapon sales to brutish regimes?

The fellow in the White House signing orders for bombing raids to stop ethnic cleansing doesn’t do so with clean hands.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press.


05/05/99: Gun Shy
04/30/99: A Flyover War
04/28/99: Darwin Made Me Do It
04/16/99: Spin to Sell
04/16/99: No Controlling Authority
04/16/99: Damage Done
04/14/99: No Left Churn
04/12/99: Clinton’s Policy Bombs
04/09/99: A Cuban Frost
04/05/99: Coups and Fibbers
03/31/99: The Flynt Fizzle
03/24/99: Liddy and St. Steve
03/19/99: Hope in Hollywood
03/12/99: Clinton: The Novel
03/08/99: A Tale of Two Clintons
03/04/99: ..and Dumber
03/01/99: Post-Mortem Ad Nauseam
02/25/99: What’s Next?

©1999, David Corn