19 August 2007

Amen, Brother

In his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column of 10 August 2007, Gregg Easterbrook writes the following:

Turning to the United States Constitution, George W. Bush said in Washington in 2007, "I don't think Congress ought to be running the war." The Founding Fathers said in Philadelphia in 1789 [*], "The Congress shall have the power to ... declare war, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water." The founders were quite clear that they wanted Congress running wars, among other things declaring only Congress could approve funds "to raise and support armies" and that congressional approval for military spending might
last no longer than two years

What are "letters of marque and reprisal?" The writers of United States Constitution assumed the new nation would have a permanent navy but no standing army: If an army was needed, it would be raised and funded on a two-year basis. Yet the framers knew international circumstances might call for military action short of sending an army into battle. Letters of marque grant to mercenaries -- at the time, it was normal for nations to retain soldiers-for-hire -- the right to act in America's name for a specific purpose, such as taking back some thing or location seized by privateers. Letters of reprisal could confer on the Navy, or on mercenaries, color of the flag to conduct a specific retaliation in America's name. The modern meaning of "letters of marque and reprisal" is "commando raids and air strikes."

So the Founding Fathers did not merely grant Congress sole power to declare war -- they expected Congress to be involved in the conduct of war, by such means as issuing specific instructions regarding what could and could not be attacked on land or water. The Commander in Chief clause of the Constitution mainly serves to make clear that the executive is superior to the military -- the framers did not want the
U.S. military resisting civilian control, as did some European militaries of the era. Bush and other modern presidents of both parties have behaved as though the Commander in Chief clause locates in them unilateral authority for all use of force: the Founding Fathers would be horrified to learn that Bush and other modern
presidents act as though they have unchecked powers in matters of war. Here's
the text of the United States Constitution, which all Americans including our current president ought to take a few moments to familiarize themselves with.

*=Minor quibble--the constitution was written in 1787. It became the law of the land in 1788 by ratification and the government was seated in 1789.

Emphasis added

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