Pete Souza/AP/The White House
President Obama holds a meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House on Nov. 23 — the last of 10 war council sessions with senior advisers as he contemplated a strategy shift in the war.
President Obama holds a meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House on Nov. 23 — the last of 10 war council sessions with senior advisers as he contemplated a strategy shift in the war. Pete Souza/AP/The White House
In a pivotal moment in his first year in office, President Obama made his case in prime time Tuesday night for sending more troops to Afghanistan. This important address was delivered not in the chambers of Congress but at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
The location Obama chose certainly didn't slip the notice of lawmakers. Congress may have the sole constitutional authority to declare wars and then finance them, but in America it is the president that carries them out.
There is clear restlessness on Capitol Hill about what to do with the war in Afghanistan, now in its ninth year and showing little sign of a successful conclusion. And much of the restlessness and concerns are coming from Obama's own party.
Democrats are nervous about the cost of the war, especially amid double-digit unemployment and as they try to pass an expensive retooling of the nation's health care system. How do we pay for it? A surtax? With war bonds?
And many Democrats question the ultimate goal in Afghanistan.
Obama's plan will raise the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to about 100,000. Will that hasten the end of the war? Is the Karzai government, widely seen as corrupt, worth fighting for? Is victory possible? And what defines victory?
President Franklin D. Roosevelt appears before a joint session of Congress appealing for a declaration of war against Japan on Dec. 8, 1941. Shortly after the address, he got his request.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt appears before a joint session of Congress appealing for a declaration of war against Japan on Dec. 8, 1941. Shortly after the address, he got his request. AP
There are many questions; fewer answers.
More important, many Democrats are demanding a say in the process. Only five times in the nation's history, and not since World War II, has Congress used its power to declare war.
In the past half-century, U.S. troops have been fighting, and dying, in faraway places like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — all without a declaration of war by Congress. And as familiar as it is to hear a president sending Americans overseas to fight, it is equally familiar to hear lawmakers demanding a say in the process. And that goes back as far as Vietnam.
Vietnam: The Gulf Of Tonkin
In the early 1960s, the situation in South Vietnam was not going well. American advisers had been sent there as far back as the Eisenhower administration. But through the Kennedy years, Saigon's ability to fend off the North Vietnamese, as well as the Vietcong, was rapidly declining. Congress was starting to get restless — especially with an election on the horizon. President Lyndon Johnson kept arguing that the cause was tight — it's a "struggle for freedom on every front of human activity," he said. But lawmakers remained skeptical.
Then came the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin.
On Aug. 2, 1964, the U.S. destroyer Maddox was attacked by three North Vietnamese PT boats in international waters, an attack that the Defense Department said was repeated two days later.
Johnson immediately called congressional leaders to the White House. Later that night, in a nationally televised address, Johnson said that while "we still seek no wider war," the U.S. would meet "repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States" with a strong response. He urged Congress to pass a resolution "making it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom, and in defense of peace, in Southeast Asia."
President Lyndon Johnson signs the Tonkin resolution, which gave him power to escalate the Vietnam war. It was easily passed by both houses of Congress, although it was later repealed.
President Lyndon Johnson signs the Tonkin resolution, which gave him power to escalate the Vietnam war. It was easily passed by both houses of Congress, although it was later repealed. MPI/Getty Images
Congress, firmly in the hands of Johnson's fellow Democrats, immediately began debate, though it wasn't much of a debate. When all was said and done, the resolution quickly passed in both houses: in the Senate by a vote of 88-2 (with only Oregon's Wayne Morse and Alaska's Ernest Gruening voting no), and in the House on a 414-0 vote.
Years later, as the war continued to go sour and questions were raised about what really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin — did LBJ lie to the country about the reasons to go to war? — Congress grew angry and bitter. That bitterness was especially felt among Democrats. Sens. J. William Fulbright, Birch Bayh, Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern all became fierce opponents of the war. But all had voted for it.
A defiant Congress, watching the daily reports of death and hopelessness in Vietnam, voted to repeal the Tonkin resolution in January 1971. But at the same time it continued to authorize funds for the war and reject resolutions that called for the war's end, and so President Richard Nixon felt the repeal was irrelevant.
Two years later, over Nixon's veto, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution. It required the president to report to Congress before sending American soldiers to fight overseas. But Nixon and succeeding presidents simply ignored it or dismissed it as unconstitutional. And thus, as we saw with the U.S. airstrike on Libya, the Marines being sent to Lebanon, the taking of Grenada, and the overthrow of the Noriega government in Panama, among others, Congress' role was all but nonexistent.
Desert Storm: Demanding A Say
In the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, there was a growing insistence by the administration of President George H.W. Bush that something must be done militarily to stop Saddam Hussein. But, burned by what became a de facto declaration of war in the Tonkin Gulf resolution, Democrats refused to be bowled under. Before any troops were to be sent to the Mideast, they were demanding a say in making the decision.
Democratic leaders insisted that sanctions be given time to work, rather than allowing Bush to send in troops. Republicans complained that Democrats were "tying the president's hands behind his back." Democrats stood firm.
It took Congress five months from the invasion of Kuwait to begin action. But, unlike with Vietnam, Congress took its role seriously. The debate was sometimes bitter, often personal, but always heartfelt. In the end, the vote was close. On Jan. 12, 1991, Congress voted to authorize Bush to go to war against Iraq if it didn't withdraw its forces from Kuwait. The Senate vote was 52-47, with only 10 Democrats voting with the Republicans. The House followed, with a 250-183 vote.
President George W. Bush signs a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq on Oct. 16, 2002, in the East Room of the White House. The House passed the resolution 296-133, and the Senate followed suit, with a 77-23 vote.
President George W. Bush signs a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq on Oct. 16, 2002, in the East Room of the White House. The House passed the resolution 296-133, and the Senate followed suit, with a 77-23 vote. Ron Edmonds/AP
As it turned out, the war went surprisingly well for the U.S.: Before February was out, a cease-fire was declared. Bush, basking in 89 percent approval ratings (a record high in the Gallup surveys), went to Congress on March 6 and was treated like a hero.
What a shame for that president that the 1992 election wasn't held in 1991. Bush would lose his re-election bid to Bill Clinton.
Post-Sept. 11: Forgetting The Lessons Of Vietnam
It was a different Bush in 2001. George W. Bush, in office fewer than eight months when terrorists struck at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, quickly authorized the striking back at Taliban forces in Afghanistan. But he also set his sights on Iraq and threats — real or imagined — posed by Saddam and his regime. Some said he wanted to finish the job that his father began.
Unlike his father, he made it clear from the beginning that he was less interested in approval from the Democratic Congress before taking action. But Republicans, on a roll following the Sept. 11 attacks, pushed for a vote before the 2002 midterm elections. "We care about national security and the Democrats don't" was the message, and "the voters can decide for themselves."
This time, Democrats talked less about Vietnam and more about the political fallout. On Oct. 10, 2002, the House voted 296-133 to give Bush authority to go to war. Eighty-one Democrats, including Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, voted with the president.
Ten hours later, the Senate followed suit, with a 77-23 vote. Among the Democrats voting yes were Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Whip Harry Reid, and future presidential candidates Christopher Dodd, Joseph Biden, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.
The history of Congress and its role in sending Americans to fight wars overseas is fraught with suspicion and doubt.
Among the challenges facing President Obama is that, unlike Johnson in 1964 or Bush I in 1991 or Bush II in 2002, his problem with Congress is convincing his own party that the cause is right.
And right now, that is a tough sell.