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It's time for the Democratic candidates to talk more about national security

13 Jan 2020 TheHill

The seventh Democratic debate is the last session before Iowa Democrats caucus to select a presidential nominee and the first debate since the start of the military confrontation between the United States and Iran.

The timing requires a serious and thorough discussion of national security policy, which has gotten short shift in the previous debates.

Health care has been the dominant issue in the first six debates. Foreign policy and health care are at the polar ends of the issue agenda in the 2020 campaign.

There is a great deal of voter concern in remedies for dealing with the health care crisis facing Americans, but seemingly little concern with national security policy.

But national security deserves more attention, because while the next president will need to work closely with Congress to reform the ailing health care system, the president has a great deal of flexibility to act unilaterally to address threats from abroad.

The president’s unchecked power to act internationally is at center stage now because of the most recent confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.

Many have said that it’s a lot easier to start a war than to end one. The U.S. started fighting in Afghanistan 19 years ago and American soldiers are still dying there. After decades of American military force in the Middle East, the crisis there has gotten worse, not better. President Trump might have just started a new war with Iran, and he doesn’t seem to have a clue how to end it. This from the presidential candidate who promised an end to the perpetual wars in the Middle East.

The U.S. strike against General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force illustrates how much power presidents possess to attack other nations without congressional approval or even consultation.

Since the end of World War II, every president has committed American military forces to foreign conflict without a congressional declaration of war. This unilateral power to fight wars and risk the lives of brave young American is not what the Founding Fathers intended.

Our Founding Fathers fought a war for independence, so they understood the human costs of conflict. Because they lived through the horrors of war, they created a system that made it difficult to start one. The Founders gave Congress, the representatives of the people, not the president, the power to declare or start a war. They made the president, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces with the power to direct and fight the war only after Congress had authorized it.

But that was then, this is now. The president can start a war with a phone call or a tweet without any kind of congressional input. A war should be difficult to start, as the Founders intended. It shouldn’t be as easy as posting something on twitter.

Once a country attacks another nation, the consequences are often unforeseen. The only way for Americans to comprehend the full ramifications of war is through a comprehensive congressional debate before a conflict begins. 

Barbara Tuchman’s book, “The Guns of August” is a guide to the unpredictable fortunes of war. Austria’s simple decision to attack Serbia in retaliation for the assassination of a member of the Austrian royal family led to a war that killed millions. We still deal with the costs of World War I, especially in the Middle East a century later.

The escalating level of tension with Iran makes the discussion of presidential war power a priority in this debate.

In response to Trump’s failure to consult Congress before the attack on Soleimani, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would limit his power to fight Iran without congressional authorization. This legislation sadly is just a gesture, since it probably won’t even get a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.

There will be six Democratic presidential candidates on the stage Tuesday.

One of them, Joe Biden, has considerable background in foreign policy. He was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee while a U.S. senator and an international trouble shooter for eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president.

Biden’s national security experience could be a strong asset if foreign policy becomes a big issue in the campaign. But his vote in the Senate for the congressional resolution that President George W. Bush used as authorization to attack Iraq in 2003 has left Biden open to attack from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was a vocal opponent of the invasion.

Former Sound Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg served in Afghanistan as a naval intelligence officer. The other three Democratic debaters, investor Tom Steyer and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) don’t have the same level of foreign policy expertise.

I hope the moderators of this and subsequent debates question the candidates closely about their positions on the president’s power to start a war without congressional approval.

The president needs some flexibility in a wired and dangerous world. But the situation is seriously out of whack. It is time to heed the founders to restore to Congress its right over life and death decisions in the international arena.

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is also the host of a radio podcast “Deadline D.C. With Brad Bannon” that airs on the Progressive Voices Network. Follow him on Twitter @BradBannon.

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