The Cowardice of Congress

A tote board shows the votes of members of Congress as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) presides over the final of two House of Representatives votes approving two counts of impeachment against President Donald Trump in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill, December 18, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Iran’s U.S. diplomats have some complaints; Congress is too scared to do its job; and Bernie Sanders might start racking up frequent-flyer miles.

Iran Complains the U.S. Is Restricting the Movement of Its Diplomats

Maybe the Trump administration should just tell Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that it just isn’t safe to travel into Bill de Blasio’s New York City these days:

The Trump administration is barring Iran’s top diplomat from entering the United States this week to address the United Nations Security Council about the U.S. assassination of Iran’s top military official in Baghdad, violating the terms of a 1947 headquarters agreement requiring Washington to permit foreign officials into the country to conduct U.N. business, according to three diplomatic sources.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif requested a visa a “few weeks ago” to enter the United States to attend a Jan. 9 Security Council meeting on the importance of upholding the U.N. Charter, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the matter. The Thursday meeting was to provide Tehran’s top diplomat with his first opportunity to directly address the world community since U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the Jan. 3 drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, a top Iraqi militia leader, among others.

The Iranian government was awaiting word on the visa Monday when a Trump administration official phoned U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to inform him that the United States would not allow Zarif into the country, according to the Washington-based diplomatic source. 

Gee Iran, it really stinks when another country ignores international law and doesn’t allow your diplomats to move freely, huh? We won’t let your guys enter, you wouldn’t let our guys leave . . . yup, diplomacy would be so much easier if everyone honored their signed agreements.

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Of course, I’d let him into the country, just because I figure it’s easier to conduct covert espionage while he’s on our soil.

Yes, We Should Update the Authorization for Military Force. But Congress Is Cowardly.

Kevin had a typically strong column this weekend. House speaker Nancy Pelosi contends that the strike on Soleimani was provocative and disproportionate, that it put the lives of American service members, diplomats, and others further at risk, and that Congress was not properly notified. Kevin observes she’s acting like an irritated pundit, rather than one of the heads of the legislative branch of government:

But Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House, not a passive bystander unable to do anything at all about a situation that, if we take her at her word, she believes to be potentially catastrophic. She can do more than stamp her foot. She could, if she were so inclined, begin the process of repealing the Iraq AUMF (authorization of the use of military force) — which is long overdue, irrespective of the wisdom or propriety of the killing of Qasem Soleimani.

The Iraq AUMF has been on the books since 2002, when it was enacted to empower the administration of George W. Bush to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who is long gone. It is supplemented by an earlier AUMF, passed shortly after 9/11, which authorized the U.S. government to go after those responsible for the attacks of that day and any “associated forces.” But the version of al-Qaeda responsible for 9/11 is long gone, too, even if the name lives on. Also gone is the principal actor behind the attack, Osama bin Laden, killed by U.S. forces and buried at sea. Conversely, the Tehran-backed militias (Kata’ib Hezbollah et al.) causing havoc in Iraq today — and killing Americans in the process — did not exist in 2001 or 2002. And if either AUMF was meant to include the Iranian state, then that certainly was not made explicit in the relevant texts. 

The only difference between Kevin and myself is that I think in the absence of a repealed AUMF or a new one, the current version, stretched here, there, and everywhere like silly putty, does cover the strike on Soleimani. Like it or not, the people of the United States told their government after 9/11: “stop the guys who did this.” While the specific guys who did this, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, have been largely pounded, the various offshoots are still active and very much want to kill more Americans. That 2001 authorization was written pretty broadly, and that didn’t happen by accident.

As Americans, we have a Constitution that declares only Congress can declare war, but we have an executive branch that is the supreme commander of the armed forces, and we live in a world where we frequently need some sort of not-quite-full-war military operation, sometimes on short notice, hitting targets of opportunity. There isn’t time to call Congress to debate and approve every special-operations team raid, every air strike, or every launch of a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone.

The War Powers Act of 1973 was supposed to clear all of this up. That law requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30-day withdrawal period, without a congressional authorization for use of military force (AUMF) or a declaration of war by the United States. When the law passed, President Nixon vetoed it, and Congress overrode its veto. But most presidents have either ignored it (Bill Clinton during the bombing campaign in Kosovo, the Obama administration’s actions in Libya) or contended it is an unconstitutional infringement of the president’s authorities as commander-in-chief.

Last year, 215 House Democrats and 21 Republicans voted for an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill expressing “the sense of Congress that the 2001 AUMF has been utilized beyond the scope that Congress intended; and that any new authorization for the use of military force to replace the 2001 AUMF should include a sunset clause, a clear and specific expression of objectives, targets, and geographic scope, and reporting requirements.” (If you’re going to do something this important, vote on this idea by itself on the merits — don’t stick it into some larger bill.) But it never went anywhere in the Senate.

Plenty of members of Congress are terrified of the consequences of voting to authorize or reject military action. You could argue the vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq was the issue that helped Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, or at least one of the issues. In the current primary, Joe Biden is still getting grief for his vote over Iraq. Passing a new authorization of military force would require Congress to declare that one set of military strikes is authorized but another set is not — a vote that could hurt them down the road. They’ll be accused either of reckless warmongering or of denying the military the authority to strike a gathering threat.

Many members of Congress are extremely comfortable with the imperial presidency, as long as their party controls the White House. Many would quite literally prefer not to know what is being done in the name of fighting terrorism, to avoid even the responsibility of knowledge. Florida representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, believed that President Obama’s “kill list” for drone strikes was a nutty conspiracy theory — after it had been covered in the New York Times.

Back in 2014, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee and the 14 other members of the “Full Employment Caucus” in Congress introduced not legislation but drafted executive orders that they wanted the president to sign. Frustrated by being in the legislative minority, they started dreaming up new ways for the executive branch to change the laws and regulations. She declared, “we’ll give President Obama a number of executive orders that he can sign with pride and strength, in fact, I think that should be our number one agenda, that’s write up these executive orders, draft them, of course, and ask the president to stand with us.” As the meme goes, that’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works. If you want to serve in the executive branch, then leave the legislative branch.

Pelosi announced the House will introduce and vote on a “War Powers Resolution to limit the President’s military actions regarding Iran” amid rising tension. Declaring Iran off-limits is a step, but the country would be better served by an authorization that clarifies whether or not Congress authorizes, and accepts responsibility, for ongoing counterterrorism operations in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Niger, Somalia, and elsewhere.

Those Darn Fat-Cat Candidates Flying on Private Jets Like . . . Bernie Sanders

There are two ways the impeachment trial in the Senate can progress: very quickly or very slowly. Clearly, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell would prefer to get this over and done with as quickly as possible and move on to more consequential legislation. (Apparently the U.S. Senate could end up passing the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement as early as this week.)

But McConnell could change his mind and decide that if the Senate is going to have a trial, it should have a lengthy and in-depth trial, with witnesses like Hunter Biden. In 1999, the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton met every afternoon, six days a week, for five weeks. This is terrible if your name is Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, or Michael Bennet.

Wait, never mind. NBC News says Bernie Sanders will have access to private jets to get him to the primary states in the evenings.

Of the five senator-candidates — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado — Sanders appears to be the best positioned to balance his senatorial duties with campaigning.

Sanders’ war chest, including his field-leading $34.5 million haul in the last quarter of 2019, allows him flexibility that other contenders can’t match — including the use of private jets to ferry him back and forth for late rallies in early states.

“They’re not going to be meeting at night [for the trial], so we can obviously fly from D.C. to states and hold events in the evening and fly back, you know, so he can be back in the morning to do his work in the Senate,” Sanders campaign adviser Jeff Weaver told NBC News. 

Must be nice to be able to afford all those private-jets flights!

ADDENDUM: Yesterday’s article on Iran brought some kind words from Brit Hume and Andy McCarthy and many readers. That said, you should probably read more than one article about Iran!

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