Thursday, September 30, 2010

Yes: "Let's Repeal Congress' Blank Check" (for war)

Barbara Lee of Oakland, California is my Congress Critter, an archtype in most ways of the California left-liberal Democrat  -- so naturally, she and I have little in common ideologically.

But as a Libertarian, I was delighted at her editorial today in Sept 30, 2010 San Francisco Chronicle, headlined "Let's repeal Congress' blank check"  -- referring to the "Authorization for the Use of Military Force," passed in 2001 in the heat of the 9/11 attacks, which is the basis for the past nine years of war around the world..

I am happy she is pressing to end the several wars we are currently engaged in -- but more delightful is a particular insight she gives:

"I was the only member of Congress who voted against [the bill] because I knew some would use it as a blank check to wage war anywhere in the world."

Well, looks like she called that one right, doesn't it?

What's wonderful about this is not just the amazing bravery she showed in voting against "broadly authorizing the president to use 'all necessary and appropriate force' " immediately after these acts of terror. That's no way to get the pundits on your side.

It's her critically important insight into how government works. Her paying attention to the long-term effects of such grants of power is in full agreement with Libertarian thinking -- and even more so with the thinking of the Founders.

Back in the 1960s, as the Vietnam problem was enticing the US into deeper involvement, a confused report of North Vietnamese ships firing on US ships "observing" in international waters just off the coast of North Vietnam was used to create an uproar, in the midst of which President Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat this time) submitted a request, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, similar to the more recent one mentioned above, to give the president authority to pursue the malfactors of North Vietnam with all necessary and proper force. This bill passed in the Senate 99 to 1 (who was the sole holdout, anybody remember?). This bill, now law, was used as the primary justification for everything that followed in our undeclared war in Vietnam. Just as the current authorization justifies our undeclared wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and if we choose, future wars in Iran and Somalia (and anywhere else we claim to think is influenced by al-Qaida).

The historical parallel with Barbara Lee's statement above: Years later, when enthusiasm for the war faltered, Senator Fulbright, a staunch Democrat kingmaker, said that he regretted voting for that authorization, in hindsight. His comment, approximately, was: I forgot that I was voting this power not just to this President for this moment, but to any President at any time.

Each grant of power must be viewed in this light: Laws are rarely if ever written very narrowly, but tend to be written to grant sweeping authority to act with considerable discretion -- we tend to empower the authorities to "do what's right." Mainly because "our guy" is in power and knows what we mean by "what's right."

And then one day power changes hands and the other guy is holding the reins of power -- and, dammit, he's using that power to do what *he* thinks is right. How dare he! This is what happened when Reagan became president and tried to use the power Democrats had given Democratic presidents to Do Good, except he was doing *his* idea of good -- and of course that infuriated the liberals. Who hadn't thought that far ahead.

But politicians never think that far ahead. They think about now, and about how they can manipulate now to aggrandize their power, and their likelihood of getting reelected. And, like Scarlett O'Hara, they brush aside worries about what might happen in the future: "I shall worry about that tomorrow." 

Good luck with that.

Except for Barbara Lee -- or rather, of course, except for Barbara Lee in this instance and with this issue. Her left-wing ideology starts her on the road to resisting calls for war -- though she, unlike her many left-liberal colleagues in the House and Senate at that time, actually went down that road to its logical conclusion.

I congratulate Barbara Lee for vision -- I wish she were able to see how other grants and grabs of governmental power likewise lead to greater and lesser tyrannies over time -- and for her courage in defying hysteria the first time. Rare to see that kind of guts in national politics.

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