Congress Finds its War Powers — and Weaknesses

February 3rd, 2019 - by admin

David Swanson / Let’s Try Democracy & Ryan Grim / The Intercept – 2019-02-03 00:27:00

Congress Finds its War Powers and Weaknesses

Congress Finds its War Powers and Weaknesses
David Swanson / Let’s Try Democracy

(January 31, 2019) — The bill now in both houses has outrageous and truly bizarre loopholes in it. Some of its supporters last year were apparently pretending to support it while fending off antiwar primary challengers, and the closeness of a failed vote is never any indication of how easily one can get to a successful vote.

Trump has threatened to veto. Trump could also simply violate the law with the clear expectation that he would not be impeached for it. And Yemen is unlikely to ever fully recover.

But none of that is what worries me.

What worries me are the other several current wars and dozens of permanent occupations, and Congressional efforts to impose a ban on ending them. Bills have now been introduced to prevent the withdrawal of US troops from Syria or South Korea to anything below certain levels, unless numerous conditions are met.

So, Congress could conceivably, for the first time, assert itself both to end a war and simultaneously to prevent the end of a war. Both steps would be a blow to supporters of temporary despotism. Both would be a win for the Constitutional idea of a country run by an elected legislature.

Together they might create more of an opening to demand that Congress vote one way or the other on each existing war and on potential new ones. Then we, the people, might really take on the uphill unfair struggle against the war profiteers to win each of those votes.

But the combination of developments could still be a net loss. The power to decree that a war not end might do even more damage than the power to end one, for at least four reasons.

First, Congress would be assuming the authority to decree that a crime be committed. US warmaking in Syria and most other places violates the United Nations Charter, as well as the Kellogg Briand Pact. These treaties are the supreme law of the land in the United States under the US Constitution.

Second, making wars and occupations permanent through legislation establishes a different level of empire and of imperial thinking. It removes the pretense that military forces have been sent somewhere to improve a situation, after which they will eventually depart.

IIt makes clear to the world and to the US public that the goal is permanent empire. Why should North Korea negotiate or take steps toward disarmament with a government that will not and cannot ever reciprocate?

Third, the bills to prevent withdrawals use the power of the purse. They forbid the spending of US funds to withdraw US troops. This is a rare use of the power of the purse, in theory much to be commended. However, not withdrawing troops costs more money than does withdrawing troops. So this is a requirement to spend more money in the guise of a restriction on spending money. The Pentagon is simply going to adore that trick becoming standard practice.

Fourth, Congress seems to be moving toward the most significant assertion of its powers for the stupidest of reasons. That is, while many in Congress may be responding to public demand or morality on Yemen, many seem to be responding to unquestioning militarism or partisanship or worse on Syria and Korea.

If the US president were a Democrat, I guarantee you that the number of Democrats in Congress trying to oppose him on Korea would be radically altered simply by partisanship.

It’s not that long since the United States was pretending it didn’t have troops in Syria, or since having troops in Syria was considered outrageous. Now, out of partisanship or militarism or an anti-Russian pursuit of World War III, attitudes have changed.

Perhaps there’s a way to take advantage of the use of the power of the purse. Does anyone who has a boat favor peace on earth? What about a ship? What about a plane? Do any airlines dislike war? What about any nations? What about the United Nations? How about war tax resisters?

Would any of them put up some funding to bring US troops home from wars and occupations? It would cost South Korea less to provide cruise ships to take US troops to California than Trump is asking South Korea to pay for its own occupation. Should we start an online fundraising campaign? I mean, the Pentagon has never turned down money before, right?

I suppose we couldn’t really go through with it. If the Pentagon could use private funds to end a war it would be sure to use other private funds to launch five more. Remember the Contras? But couldn’t we make a statement? “I pledge to contribute to the US government funding to be used exclusively for bringing troops home from wars.”

Congress would still have to change the law, though, and we’d be digging into our shallow pockets while billionaires stood aside or spied on us or ran for president. So, in the end, the simpler solution is probably best: Offer an amendment to the permawar bills that allows bringing the troops home to be paid for by picking out one planned F-35 and not building it.

Note: [The] following suggests that Adam Smith pretended to support using war powers resolution for Yemen because of a primary challenger but now is dropping the pretense. Which suggests that we need to go after him now for the dishonesty.

And this is likely a portrait of many — mostly Democratic — Congress Members. The fact that they failed by 3 votes last Congress and now have a Democratic majority guarantees absolutely nothing.
— David Swanson (January 31, 2019)

When Primaries Matter
Ryan Grim / Bad News @ The Intercept

(January 31, 2019) — The fight to end the war in Yemen kicked off again Wednesday in Congress, with War Powers resolutions being re-introduced in both the House and Senate. Last year, the Senate passed its version, led by Bernie Sanders, while the House was blocked from considering its. That one, led by Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal this year, is expected to pass now that Democrats are in control. It could happen as early as February.

I have a story up tonight about how the last push came so close, and much of the credit belongs to an obscure primary challenge in Washington state. The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, became an outspoken champion of the War Powers Resolution last fall, as he fended off a challenge from an anti-war opponent. Now that the election is over, he’s far less enthusiastic about it. That piece is here.

Steny Hoyer, who was a public supporter of the resolution last time, but didn’t whip members to get it across the finish line (even though his title is “whip”) is a co-sponsor of the resolution this time. But his statement accompanying it doesn’t actually call for it to pass — he only commits to bring it to the floor for a vote — and that “we should not discount the humanitarian efforts by our Saudi and Emirati allies.”

Congress made its most aggressive use ever of the War Powers Act to end an ongoing conflict at the end of 2018, with the Senate approving — and the House coming just short — a resolution that would have required the United States to end its support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

On Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., re-introduced that resolution, and with the House in Democratic control, it’s expected to pass both chambers this year and head to the president’s desk, setting up a confrontation over US involvement in the war.

Since 2015, the United States has provided logistical support to Saudi Arabia, in addition to tens of billions of dollars in arms sales. The resolution, which seeks to end that, picked up momentum in the wake of the butchering of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

But inside the House, a much lower-profile development played a critical but overlooked role: a Democratic primary campaign in Washington state. Significant credit for that resolution’s earlier momentum, say people closely involved in the process, belongs indirectly to Sarah Smith, a long-shot congressional candidate who challenged Democratic Rep. Adam Smith in Washington last year, making it to the general election before losing.

Adam Smith at the time was the top-ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee and is now the panel’s chair, and Sarah Smith mounted her challenge largely in opposition to what she cast as his hawkish foreign policy approach, with a specific emphasis on Yemen.

Adam Smith, facing the challenge from Sarah Smith, became an outspoken advocate of using the War Powers Resolution in the fall to go up against the Trump administration, including by becoming a leading sponsor of a new War Powers resolution on Yemen. Now that he has won re-election, he remains a supporter of the effort, but his enthusiasm for it has changed noticeably.

“The War Powers resolution thing,” Smith told trade reporters who cover the Pentagon and the weapons industry in a post-election interview in December, before groaning. “There’s no way in the world you can write these stories that’s going to come out in a way that’s positive for me, but I’ll say it anyway: The War Powers resolution is only so useful.”

His shift in rhetoric underscores the impact primary challenges can have on internal House politics, but it also could make him vulnerable to another challenge in two years.

“For nearly a year Adam Smith faced a primary challenge from Justice Democrat Sarah Smith who routinely brought up his hawkish foreign policy views and campaign donations from defense contractors as central issues in the campaign,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, which backed Sarah Smith’s candidacy.

“In many of our races, even when we lost, there was a clear ‘primary effect’ when Democratic incumbents started to embrace more progressive policies and rhetoric. Primary challenges put pressure on Democrats in many blue districts to be more accountable to progressive and Democratic voters in their districts.”

Adam Smith might think it’s hard to write this story in a way that comes out positively for him, but let’s try anyway. It’s fair to say he is not by any stretch the most hawkish member of Democratic leadership and is regarded by progressive foreign policy advocates as somebody who’s willing to work with them.

“From Afghanistan to Yemen to the budget, it’s never been Smith we had to move, to be honest,” said one advocate who works with Smith, but asked not to be named for fear of repercussion from House leaders.

“Sometimes his staff severely holds him back, but often, he’s been rather helpful behind the scenes in triangulating to move Steny off one bad position or another,” the advocate said, referring to Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., a pro-Israel hawk and the No. 2 Democrat in the House.

Smith is a politician, and even if his primary race, and the anti-incumbent mood that swept the party in 2018, influenced his Yemen posture, there’s nothing inherently immoral with taking into account the views of the public when it comes to public policy positions.

According to people involved with the effort to pass the Yemen resolution, the starkest change in Smith’s approach came in the wake of the June 26 primary victory by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, who shocked the political world by unseating Joe Crowley, who was in line to be speaker of the House.

That appeared to focus Smith’s mind on his own primary election, scheduled for August 7. Washington State uses a top-two system, meaning that all candidates run in the same primary, and if the top-two finishers are from the same party, both of those candidates go on to the general election. Polls showed that Sarah Smith, dogging him relentlessly, was in striking distance of finishing second.

Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory had confused many veteran politicians, who sensed that things were changing, and nothing could be taken for granted. Throw in two people named Smith on the ballot, and things could go terribly wrong for one of them. When the primary came around, Adam Smith was the top vote-getter, and Sarah Smith narrowly edged out the top Republican challenger, winning the second spot on the general election ballot.

Sarah Smith said she could sense Adam Smith becoming less hawkish in real time. “I went after him about Yemen every time I got an opportunity to and I kept hammering him. When Ro [Khanna] was leading the charge, I started talking about how Ro is a junior congressman in his first term and he is leading on this, where Adam has failed for years, and I talked about how we didn’t just get involved in Yemen.

“And then Alex [Ocasio-Cortez] won and people started noticing my campaign and me talking about getting us out of Yemen and they started to become very interested, and all of a sudden, Adam started to change his tune,” Sarah Smith said.

Adam Smith rejects this characterization entirely. “I was actually on the Yemen stuff before I even knew she existed,” he told The Intercept. “It’s not just about Yemen, it’s about Saudi Arabia more broadly, the authoritarian crackdown, obviously the murder of Khashoggi. They are becoming more and more lawless in the way they’re acting and not just in Yemen, but elsewhere. . . . I’m happy to push our administration and Congress to do more on that issue.”

HIS OPPOSITION TO US involvement in Yemen, however, became decidedly more forceful as Sarah Smith’s candidacy became more potent. In 2016, Smith was just one of 16 Democrats to vote against defunding Saudi Arabia’s use of cluster bombs.

On July 26, 2018, Smith trumpeted his success in winning restrictions on war activity in Yemen in a defense appropriations bill passed by the House. It wasn’t terribly strong, however.

The bill, also backed by Khanna, prohibited the US military from providing in-flight refueling to Saudi and other coalition aircraft involved in the Yemen war, unless the secretary of state could certify that “the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are taking certain actions related to the civil war in Yemen.”

On September 6, a month after Sarah Smith clinched a primary win, Adam Smith announced that he was introducing a War Powers Resolution, with Khanna, and Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., to end the Yemen war.

Given his perch on the Armed Services Committee and his influence on matters of foreign policy, Adam Smith’s public push for the resolution was a signal to rank-and-file Democrats that it was an issue worth supporting, and the party broke en masse in favor of the resolution. Both Hoyer and Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is another leading hawk in the House, endorsed the Yemen resolution in late September.

Adam Smith went on to win the general election easily, beating Sarah Smith, 68-32. A week after Election Day, House Republicans beat back the resolution. A month later, it came up again, and this time it barely failed, with five Democrats voting with Republicans against it.

That same morning, Smith sat down with the trade reporters to offer his pessimistic take on the resolution.

His anger at how Saudi Arabia and the UAE were carrying out the war — “the closing of ports, the cutting off of aid and food, a relentless bombing campaign, and the civilian devastation that’s resulted from that is largest humanitarian crisis in the world” — was undiminished, but the War Powers Resolution wasn’t going to stop it, he said, Breaking Defense reported.

He noted that US presidents have almost unfettered control over the military, and that Congress would have to completely cut funding from the military to block the president’s actions. “It’s not so much that the War Powers Resolution is going to make the administration go, ‘Oh, shit, well we really wanted to do this, but since you hit us with this, we won’t,'” Smith told the reporters in December. “It’s that it will put public pressure on them to change what they are doing — and we’ve already seen they’ve stopped the refueling.”

When Smith referenced the resolution that he and Khanna had introduced, he characterized it as solely Khanna’s resolution. “I’ve worked with Ro Khanna, and even in his resolution, he makes it very clear he’s not stopping us from confronting Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups within Yemen,” Smith said. Indeed, the resolution carved out an exception for US operations targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Despite doubting the effectiveness of the resolution, Smith said that Khanna and Sanders’s efforts are important “because it raises awareness and attention to the problem and the question of what we ought to be doing in Yemen.”

That type of endorsement, however, leaves plenty of room for advocates of war to believe that the chair of the Armed Services Committee is no longer part of the Sanders-Khanna posse working furiously to end US involvement in the conflict.

Asked by The Intercept where he would rank the War Powers Resolution as an effective tool to nudge Saudi Arabia in the right direction, he demurred:
“I wouldn’t rank these things. Look, I mean, we cannot dictate to Saudi Arabia their foreign policy, so we shouldn’t have illusions about that. We have to figure out where can we nudge and prod and push them in a direction that is better.

“So I think it’s a mistake to look at it as if there’s something we can do that would just like that change the way they interact,” he said. “My great hope for that region is that the Sunni and the Shia and the Persians and the Arabs can find some sort of peaceful resolution to their current disputes.”

Sarah Smith said that if Adam Smith backslides on Yemen, she’s willing to challenge him again, but she’s watching to see how he does as the chair of the House Armed Services Committee before making the decision. (Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Sarah Smith in 2018, and given Ocasio-Cortez’s higher profile, Smith noted, a second endorsement could mean that the challenge would pose a bigger threat.)

“I’m not an opportunistic person. I’m just a calculated person. And so if he says he’s as progressive as he is, and if he makes all these promises on the campaign trail, I will be as supportive as I can be, as long as he is meeting his end of the bargain,” she said. “If he fails to meet his obligation, I’m going to make notes of every single time he’s failed and I’m going to challenge him again.”

One area Sarah Smith tried but did not succeed in pushing Adam Smith last year was the Stop Arming Terrorists Act, which would bar the Pentagon from arming three militant groups with a presence in Syria, including Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. (The Pentagon has armed Syrian rebels on the condition that their weapons be used only in the fight against ISIS, and the assertion that the US has actively armed terror groups in Syria has little basis in fact.)

The bill was introduced by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and co-sponsored by a small bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Khanna and Rep. Barbara Lee, but Adam Smith declined to co-sponsor it.

“He’ll talk about, ‘Oh, I’m so progressive, I’m working with Ro very closely on this. It’s abhorrent what we’re doing in Yemen,'” Sarah Smith said of her former opponent, “but if you push him on any other bill beyond that, he won’t talk about it, radio silence, or he’ll have a million excuses. He is the excuse king.”

Adam Smith, though, said that his position on Yemen has nothing to do with Sarah Smith. Asked about her contention that his resistance to the Stop Arming Terrorists Act suggested weakness on his willingness to confront Saudi Arabia, he took a swipe at her residence, which sits just across the district. “I’m happy to talk about the issue, but I really don’t care what that one individual is going to say. She’s not even actually a constituent,” he said.

Bad News is a newsletter about politics written by Ryan Grim, DC bureau chief for The Intercept and a contributor to The Young Turks. Ryan Grim is the author of the forthcoming book, We’ve Got People: The Rise of a New Force in American Politics.

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