Restoring a high threshold for war

In trying to end the US role in Yemen’s war, Congress may finally be returning authority for war – and the protection of liberty – to itself.

Houthi Shiite rebels inspect the rubble of the Republican Palace that was destroyed by Saudi-led airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen.

On Wednesday, the House voted to stop American military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. In coming weeks, the Senate is expected to follow suit. The measure, however, lacks enough votes to overcome a threatened veto by President Trump. The tragic war in Yemen, with its unacceptable toll on civilians, probably will go on. And that might be the end of yet another political drama in Washington with no real-world impact.

But wait, something historic may be happening anyway. Not since Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973 has it voted with a majority to cease United States involvement in a conflict. After decades of allowing presidents to decide when to initiate force and when to end it, the legislative branch could be indicating that it is gaining the courage to fully restore its sole authority under the Constitution to declare war.

That authority has been steadily given away to succeeding presidents over dozens of conflicts, large and small. The last time Congress officially declared a war was for World War II. The Founders “would probably be thunderstruck” at how much war power has been given to the executive branch, writes historian Michael Beschloss in a new book, “Presidents of War.”   

Article I of the Constitution, which grants war-initiation power to Congress, was designed to help Americans decide, through their representatives, when a war is “just.” Equally important, it was meant to prevent a single person, the chief executive, from using war as an excuse for other purposes, such as oppressing domestic opponents or to seek glory or a diversion before an election.

Except in the case of imminent attack on US soil, the Founders decided war is too important to be left to generals or the civilian commander in chief. Liberty is best protected by broadening the authority to use force.

The timing may now be ripe for Congress to no longer duck its duty to decide the course of war.

The conflict in Yemen has killed tens of thousands of civilians and left millions more on the brink of famine. At root, the war is a regional contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia and their different branches of Islam. Over the past year Congress has turned on longtime ally Saudi Arabia for its abuses of human rights and low regard for civilian casualties. Lawmakers are also wary of Mr. Trump’s unilateral moves toward the US role in Syria and Afghanistan.

Despite this distrust of the president and Saudi Arabia, lawmakers still lack a strong consensus to override a veto of the measure. They differ on issues such as Iran’s ability to win the war and how much to curtail US ability to fight terrorists in the region.

The whole point of Article I was to keep a high threshold on the decision to enter a war. Now Congress is trying to end the US role in a war it never directly authorized. To protect liberty and to allow the US to make wiser choices in conflicts, lawmakers should find the clarity, consensus, and discipline to assert its responsibility on issues of war – and peace.

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