With war clouds scudding in the Middle East and Asia, I’m thinking of my late friend Attila the Hun . . . pardon me, Mario Cuomo. The ex-governor once took me to lunch for the sole purpose of lecturing me on war.
Before we fight, Cuomo wanted Congress to declare the war. He wasn’t satisfied with some nickel-plated “authorization for use of military force.” He insisted on a proper declaration of war. Otherwise, no war at all.
What he had to say strikes me as a coming question, when President Trump is throwing Tomahawks at the Syrians and an American armada is steaming for Korea. Even Nick Kristof of The New York Times is declaring that Trump is in the right in Syria.
I agree with him, Vladimir Putin’s posturing notwithstanding.
When, though, will Mr. Trump have to go to Congress? Senator Rand Paul is already on his case. Dr. Paul wants Congress to “stand up,” as he put it on Fox News, and “reclaim our Constitutional authority over war.”
Scholar Stephen Carter insists Mr. Trump doesn’t have to go to Congress. He notes that every American president, going back to George Washington, “has at some point used military force without first obtaining the approval of the legislative branch.”
Late in the Vietnam War, Congress got its back up and passed the War Powers Act. It was designed, largely by Democrats, to block the president from getting us into war without a buy-in from the legislature.
Neoconservative hawks, myself included, fought the War Powers Act. The law had been cheered by those counseling defeat in Vietnam, co-existence with Soviet Russia and support for the Marxists in Nicaragua.
The War Powers Act proved a paper tiger. It was chafed at by President Reagan (in Lebanon and Central America) and ignored by Presidents Clinton (in the Balkans) and Obama (in Libya). It is widely viewed as an unconstitutional curb on the president.
Only the Bushes seemed prepared to go to Congress. Mr. Bush ’41 did it after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, even though even then some were urging him to ignore Congress and go straight to ground.
My own view was — and is — that the president didn’t have to get a war declaration but should. Otherwise, he risked our GIs getting trapped out there, as support melted away in Congress (as happened in Vietnam).
When George W. Bush went into Iraq in 2003, he also got an authorization to use military force. But neither of the Bushes got a proper declaration of war. And in both wars, Congress grew tired of the fighting.
It was largely the Democrats, like Senator Kerry, who famously voted against resupplying our GIs after voting to do so. Congress was in the middle of that bitter debate when Cuomo and I had our lunch.
Cuomo’s point was that a mere “authorization to use military force” wasn’t enough for a war. It had to be declared outright by Congress. At the time, I thought he was pettifogging, coming up with an excuse not to fight.
We sat there, two alta kakers glaring at each other over plates of spaghetti. Yet in the years since then, I have come to appreciate Cuomo’s point, which one can see by looking at two war measures side by side.
One is the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, passed by an almost unanimous Congress in 1964 to greenlight the Vietnam War. The other is the Joint Resolution passed in 1941, also by an almost unanimous Congress, against Japan.
Tonkin Gulf failed to declare a state of war. It simply said Congress “approves and supports” the determination of the president to repel an attack and prevent aggression from North Vietnam. The resolution expired when the president determined that peace and security are “reasonably assured.”
Unless Congress rescinded it first, which is what, in effect happened, in 1975.
The resolution against Japan was the real McCoy. It declared a state of war existed with Japan. Not only was the president “authorized” to use military force but he was “directed” to “employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States.”
And the immortal sentence: “To bring the conflict to a successful termination, all the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.” Nothing other than victory was authorized.
Which is what I took to be Mario Cuomo’s point.
This column first appeared in the New York Post.