It's Time to Declare War on Iraq

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We may never know the multitude of options the Baker commission considered in preparing its recommendations for resolving the Iraq crisis, but here's one two-part strategy I'd wager no one thought of: Declare war, then get out.

The get-out part is easy for anyone who's given up on the entire enterprise as an ill-considered mess that we never should have gotten into in the first place. The declare-war part is a little harder to argue for. But the fact is, if we're ever going to get fully beyond this passage in our history — and figure out how never to make a similar mistake again — officially declaring a state of war with the sovereign nation of Iraq might be one of the most curative things we can do. After all, it's awfully hard to bring a formal end to something that never had a formal beginning.

Politicians and policy makers have burned no small amount of energy in the last half century parsing the fine, and sometimes nonexistent, shades of meaning that distinguish a police action from a conflict from a peacekeeping mission from a war. There are a lot of reasons those lines are so easy to blur, but one of the most problematic is that the U.S. Constitution — an otherwise estimable document — just dropped the ball on this one.

The true strength of the Constitution has always been tensile — the taut, almost musically tuned cables that suspend and balance the executive, legislative and judicial branches against one another. But the business of war powers has, from the beginning, been something of a flat string. Article I specifically vests Congress with the authority to declare war, but Article II designates the President as commander in chief not only of the Army and the Navy, but of the militias of the several states. That's a whole lot of power explicitly given to one person, and a whole lot that may or may not have been given to the legislature to share with him.

If the office of the President really wields absolute authority over the nation's military — and it does — then why involve Congress at all? When it comes to taking the country into combat, is the American legislature merely a symbol? A chorus? A solemnly nodding counsel of elders charged with standing behind the President when he dons battle gear?

The answer to that question may be nothing more than symbolic, but since all wars are fought as much with symbols as with steel, it's worth asking. When you're about to open up a can of hurt on somebody, there's a cleansing, tonic quality to declaring explicitly that those are your intentions. That's especially true when you were hit first — as the U.S. was on Sept. 11 or in December of 1941 — and the nation needs the lift of a good, bellicose roar. But there's more to it than that.

In the constellation of Congressional actions, a declaration of war is simply clearer, less cluttered than an authorization for war. There's a pusillanimous, don't-blame-me quality to simply giving the President the keys, inviting him to take the wheel and then tsk-tsk'ing if he wrecks the thing. War is a mortally serious business, one that is best not embarked on by granting the commander in chief a mush-mouthed authority to do that which he's empowered to do anyway. It's a little like those make-work proclamations Congress periodically busies itself issuing — declaring November Reading Readiness Month, or somesuch. It's a fine sentiment, but was the legislature really opposed to reading readiness before the measure passed?

A Congress that is more insistent about its right to declare officially when the country wades into war focuses the global and domestic minds on what's to come, not to mention its own. If you can't make a convincing case in the chambers of the House and Senate for a constitutionally proclaimed war, then perhaps we oughtn't embark on it. President George W. Bush took what was arguably undeserved heat during the 2004 campaign when, in a flash of either candor or carelessness, he conceded the point that the war on terror would not end explicitly with, say, a satisfying ceremony on the deck of a battleship during which all of the belligerents sign a peace accord.

A mere declaration of war would not have made that kind of appealing ending much likelier, but it couldn't have hurt either. Sixty-five years ago, we declared war against Japan and Germany, and we fought that one tenaciously and decisively and won it conclusively. We did not send the same message before hostilities began with either Iraq or Afghanistan, and there we drift and dither still. Now, we await commissions and coalitions to help extricate us from the shambles Iraq has become and achieve the stable state that Afghanistan could still be. Knowing what we were getting into in the beginning — and saying so out loud — might have helped spare us and the world a lot of pain.