Costliest government 'program' of all? Undeclared wars

Congress's habit of ignoring Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution has arguably cost taxpayers trillions. And now it seems to be happening again, with Obama's military action in Libya.

In their zeal to cut government spending, Republicans in Congress have been quoting the Constitution and hacking away at funds for National Public Radio, which saved $5 million.

But if those same Republicans had seriously honored the Constitution 10 years ago, they might have saved $4-to-6 trillion.

That’s the total estimated cost of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – wars that Congress putatively authorized but never formally declared. Article I, Section 8, is explicit: “The Congress shall have Power to ... declare War.” But to its discredit, Congress has failed the American people for more than half a century on this score.

And now it’s happening again, as the US began bombing Libya without a congressional declaration – or even a single hearing or debate.

It’s all well and good for tea party sloganeers and their Republican allies to gripe about budget deficits. But it smacks of political cowardice when they neglect to tell the American people that our habit of fighting undeclared wars may be our costliest government “program” of all.

The cost of wrongheaded wars

There is no more eloquent testimony that Iraq and Afghanistan were wrongheaded wars than Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s speech in February to the cadets at West Point. “In my opinion,” he said, “any future Defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Secretary Gates echoed the earlier lament of the late Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who left the Pentagon in 1968, midway through the Vietnam War, and who later admitted it was the mother of all foolhardiness.

In Vietnam, and later Iraq, our presidents misled us while the stampede to go to war might have been averted with a serious congressional debate before any resolution for a declaration of war.

President Johnson told Americans that unless they drew a line in Indochina, all of Southeast Asia would fall like dominoes under the sway of a Vietnamese-Chinese axis.

Senate debate on Vietnam might have exposed flaws

A deliberate Senate debate might have exposed the flaws in that theory. There were no dominoes, and four years after American troops left Saigon, the Chinese and the Vietnamese were at war with each other.

Sadly, the Senate debated the Vietnam war only three years into that conflict. By that time it was too late. The US Senate prides itself on being the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” but its last really great debate was about civil rights in the 1960s.

I recently read Karl Marlantes’s poignant novel “Matterhorn,” which seems a thinly disguised first-person account of a Marine rifle platoon getting mauled in Vietnam as a result of bad orders from unthinking senior officers intent on their own promotions up the ranks.

The novel breaks your heart, because it calls to mind a question asked of President Gerald Ford at a White House news conference a week after Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. Aldo Beckman of the Chicago Tribune stood up and essentially asked President Ford what he would like to tell the parents of the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam. It was unfair to target Ford when the question should have been asked of Presidents Johnson and Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Iraq war: gap between perception, reality

More recently, the casus belli for the Iraq war was hyped up by the fearmongers of the Bush-Cheney White House. Had US senators considered the rationale for war in Iraq more seriously than they did, they might have found laughable some of Vice President Cheney’s alarmist remarks.

Writing in 2004, former senior CIA analyst Michael Scheuer suggested that the gap between our perception and the reality of modern US military engagements makes for an embarrassing audit. “[A]cross thirteen years of frequent military action, we not once definitively and finally defeated the force – military, paramilitary or armed rabble – we defined as a foe.... We have seen no huge body counts, no stacking of arms, no formal surrenders, no masses of prisoners of war and no tangible evidence of victory save the combination of our leaders’ claims thereof and highly staged, melodramatic homecomings....”

Congress must live up to its duties

If timid members of Congress still don’t get it, a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll suggests the public does. Nearly two thirds of Americans now say the war in Afghanistan hasn’t been worth fighting.

At the very least, if Congress won’t own up to its duties under Article I, Section 8, the incumbent president at the end of hostilities should be required to publicly address the nation and tell American parents what their children in the armed forces died for.

The tea party and its Republican allies were vociferous in opposing President Obama’s $800 billion economic stimulus package that put Americans back to work and began rebuilding our crumbling bridges and roads.

I’m waiting to hear their shouts about the reckless cost to our national debt and national security of continuing to ignore Article I, Section 8.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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