The Non-Absurdity of Declaring War

A Marine with Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command 19.2, stands post during the reinforcement of the Baghdad embassy compound in Baghad, Iraq, Jan. 4, 2020. (Sergeant Kyle C. Talbot/USMC)

In response to Re: Soleimani Was a Political Killing 

Rich Lowry writes: “Iranian-supported forces have been killing and maiming U.S. troops for years, in clear acts of war. Are we not permitted to respond to these attacks absent specific congressional authorization? That’s an absurd position.”

Yes, I think that’s exactly the right position, and I do not think it is absurd — it is the position in the Constitution.

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The president enjoys some independent use of military power during emergencies, but the power to declare a war — the power to “authorize the use of military force,” in the current antiseptic language — belongs to Congress, as does the related power of ratifying a treaty. There is a reason for that: War has always been a great seducer of kings, which is why our Founders gave the power to start one to Congress, with its more immediate democratic accountability, rather than to the president. That was wise then, and it is wise today.

Emergency powers are reasonable. But the situation with Iran is the opposite of an emergency. As Rich notes, the Iranians have been engaged in this activity for a very long time — decades, in fact. This is not some new, unforeseen, and sudden development. Authorizing an act of war on the Iranian state is something that no Congress has undertaken in the nearly 20 years since the beginning of the so-called war on terror and something that none of the three presidents who have served during that period has sought. The newspapers call Iran’s actions “provocative,” but the U.S. government has steadfastly declined to be provoked. Judging by their actions, nobody in Washington thinks this is an emergency. This is one of those things that politicians insist “cannot be tolerated” even as it is tolerated year after year after year.

Maybe somebody should take it more seriously. But in reality we have had nearly two decades since 9/11 to think about it, and that after an Iran hostage crisis that came to a climax when this gray-bearded columnist was in the third grade. This surely must be the most soporific state of war ever to have existed. It proceeds at a splendidly glacial pace, like a parade float stirred by the occasional crosswind.

If the U.S. government wants to make war on Iran, then there is a constitutional process for it to do so. So far, it has not been moved to act, in spite of the fact that, as Rich notes, “Iranian-supported forces have been killing and maiming U.S. troops for years, in clear acts of war.” No Congress has authorized war on Iran, and no president has sought such authorization.

If Iran has committed a clear act of war, as Rich says, then let Congress be clear about it, too. A little clarity all around would be desirable.

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