RNC Chair Michael Steele’s recent comments on Afghanistan – which he derisively called “Obama’s war” while questioning the potential for victory – found pockets of support across the political spectrum. On the left, those who oppose the war on ideological grounds agreed with Steele’s conclusions (if not his logic) that this is not a war we should be fighting. On the more libertarian right, many who believe that America’s foreign policy is “extraconstitutional” -- overly aggressive, idealistic and beyond what the Founder’s intended -- view the Afghan campaign as a case study in federal government overreach. If it is true that politics make strange bedfellows, Steel’s unscripted comments found a nexus of agreement from elements on the left and the right: This is a war poorly conceived, without legitimacy, and with little chance of success. I disagree with this. While I recognize fully the difficulty of the mission, and understand that Afghanistan has been the “graveyard of empires” for a millennium or more, I also believe that Barack Obama was correct in 2008 when he called Afghanistan a war “of necessity”. Afghanistan was the birthplace of the 9/11 attacks; the Taliban regime provided sanctuary and material support to Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and its global network of Jihadists. The initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001-2002 was a critical blow to this network, and provided the United States with both a measure of revenge and security after 9/11. It also replaced the Taliban, a brutal fundamentalist Islamic regime that demanded strict fealty to Islamic law with a secular, Western-facing government. To be sure, the government of Hamid Karzai is no model of Jeffersonian democracy. But let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this case – and Karzai is quite good when compared to the rule of his predecessor, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar.
More importantly, I reject the position taken by many libertarian-oriented conservatives that the war in Afghanistan is an example of government overreach and an unconstitutional exercise of executive power. To be sure, there are ample grounds for a substantive debate on presidential war powers and the Constitution – a debate that has heated up significantly since 9/11. Those who take a “strict constructionist” view see Congress’ power to declare war in Article I, Section 8 as a clear limit on the use of force: without a formal declaration of war against a defined enemy, the commitment of the U.S. military to combat is essentially proscribed. However, the case for this is not as clear as it may seem. During the debate on this topic at the Constitutional Convention, the Founders clearly intended for the executive as Commander in Chief to have the power to “repel sudden attacks” and, in the process of providing for the “common defense”, would be able to act swiftly and decisively in the case of a national emergency. The Founders instinctively understood that while a check on the president’s ability to unilaterally wage war was desirable, it should not prohibit decisive action when the nation’s security was under threat.
It is my belief that not only does the executive have the power to wage war in Afghanistan without a formal declaration of war, he has the constitutional responsibility to do so. The most important aspect of the president’s job description as found in Article II of the Constitution is in Section 2: his role as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. As such, he is principally responsible for ensuring the nation’s security, and enjoys wide latitude in utilizing the military in the prosecution of U.S. foreign policy. This has been particularly true in the latter half of the 20th century, where the U.S. has waged full-scale war in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf without a formal declaration of war. Today, the rise of transnational terror networks and so-called “asymmetrical” warfare which targets civilians without warning has made traditional forms of extended debate on foreign policy increasingly impractical. Terrorism and global Jihad has made traditional declarations of war truly a relic of an earlier age.
Because of this new reality, the nature of Congressional consent to military action has changed. While presidents are waging war without formal declarations, they do so also with the consent (and political cover) of Congressional approval. Recall that on September 14, 2001 – just days after the attacks on 9/11 – the Congress passed S.J. Res. 23, which authorized the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001”. Later, in 2002, the Congress passed the Iraq War Resolution, which gave Congressional approval for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. While short of formal declarations of war, both of these resolutions provide ample authority for the president to wage war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Contrary to the opinion of Michael Steele, this is not Obama’s war. It is America’s war. And the stakes could not be higher. The elimination of a sanctuary for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is a central national security issue for our future. One of the few correct decisions that President Obama has made since taking office is recommitting the nation to the war in Afghanistan. His recent appointment of General David Petraeus to take command is a good step in the right direction. Now he must renounce any time tables for withdrawal and allow the U.S. military to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban once and for all.
The Constitution requires the federal government to provide for the common defense of the nation and its interests – principally the protection of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. It is hard to imagine pursuing much happiness in the aftermath of a nuclear or biological attack in Times Square carried out by radical Islamists from a base in Afghanistan.