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War Powers and Civil Liberties

No Time for Cowboy Politics

by Michael Ratner

Congress has approved resolutions giving the President 40 billion dollars and open-ended authority to use military force. The Senate and House have authorized him to attack any nation, organization or person involved in or that aided the September 11 terrorist attacks. The resolutions name no county or group as targets and contain no time limit. The only positive aspect of these resolutions is the fact that President Bush sought and received the approval of Congress, as the Constitution requires. However the use of unlimited military force that the resolutions allow is dangerous, irresponsible policy.

A massive military response against a country, presumably Afghanistan, appears unwarranted and could potentially kill thousands of civilians. The initial steps should be to identify, extradite, try and punish the perpetrators of these acts in a court of law. Only if this fails should force be used for effectuating arrests. The focus should be on the perpetrators and organizations; it should not be on wars with other nations.

Employing military force out of anger, for purposes of retaliation or to satisfy domestic outrage is unlawful and does nothing to end terrorism. Massive bombing continues the cycle of violence that invariable creates sympathizers who become the new terrorist. War will make us more vulnerable. In the wake of the embassy bombing in East Africa the U.S. used military tactics striking Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan killing innocent people. This did not stop or even slow terrorism. Arguably, those actions may have sown the seeds of September 11.

Dangerously this congressional resolution contains no time limit, no congressional oversight and no requirements that the President ever come back to Congress for additional authority. This, unlike prior authorizations of force e.g. authorization to use force in Lebanon, gives the President unlimited power without the checks and balances of the Constitution. It eviscerates congressional control over the use of force and puts the power of war into the hands of one man, leading us quickly from democracy to one-man rule.

The resolution permits the use of military force against nations that “aid[ed]” the September 11 attack “Aid” is a vague, broad concept that may permit attacks on nations with only a tenuous relationship to the terrorist acts. This determination will be made with no congressional check and without any requirement of congressional approval.

The President should obtain the authority of the U.N. Security Council to use military force. This is what his father did in going to war against Iraq. Multilateral action through the U.N. will be more effective in fighting terrorism than going it alone, obtaining such consent is both responsible law and policy.

Finally, we share in the hope that those responsible for these heinous acts will be caught and punished. But we fear that the course our country is currently embarked upon is fraught with danger for us all. CP

Michael Ratner is director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.