New Year's Resolution
The definition of a word is meant to be a singular idea. In the evolution of usage and the blending of disparate cultures, naturally an overlap in meaning developed. This overlap reduces clarity of speech and by its very nature leads to misunderstanding. Such a misunderstanding is impacted by both the severity of the situation described and the cultural relationship with the intended recipient.
Resolution is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:
res·o·lu·tion noun \ˌre-zə-ˈlü-shən\
: the act of finding an answer or solution to a conflict, problem, etc. : the act of resolving something
: an answer or solution to something
: the ability of a device to show an image clearly and with a lot of detail.
The War Powers Resolution of 1973 (“WPR”) does nothing even remotely close to this definition. The ambiguity of this law, like so many others, renders it so open to interpretation that either side of a debate can claim the legal authority while proposing diametrically opposed positions. By its very nature, this ambiguity divides us as a nation, but more troubling is the lack of clarity we present to the world. Our allies understand that our form of government has a give-and-take balance that may shift geopolitical agendas from one administration to the next.
This shifting may cause some trepidation when contemplating a coalition of nations tasked with eliminating a particular threat to stability. This effect was apparent in each succeeding effort to mobilize allied countries in the U.S. interventions in the Middle East. The 1991 Gulf War was supported by thirty-nine nations. Even though the United States, with the aid of the United Kingdom, initially engaged in the 2001 Afghanistan war, a total of forty-three nations were involved under NATO. The 2003 Iraq war was initially waged by the US, United Kingdom, Australia and Poland. Thirty-six other nations joined in the coalition with the intended purpose of bringing stability to the region.
These three conflicts show the willingness of other nations to join with us when we have clear purpose and a sense of resolve. Even in these examples, the willingness to join in the 2003 Iraq war was weakened by the public debate that ensued when President GeorgeW. Bush chose to go back to Congress for further authorization, rather than relying on the original authorization passed before the Afghanistan war. Regardless of which side was correct, the debate lessened the confidence of our allies.
With the daily news of another potential world hot spot erupting and having a damaging effect on either our security or the security of an ally (Kiev one week, Venezuela the next), we are faced with making public statements that have conflicting messages for the involved parties.
To the lack of resolve we are currently displaying with regard to our willingness and ability to affect world affairs, we can add the ambiguity of the WPR debate that is taking place today. Both our friends and our foes are watching us argue about the meaning and legality of a law that has supposedly governed our war-making decisions for half a century.
In the pressure cooker of the Middle East, rulers that have maintained a somewhat firm hand on the seats of power are finding themselves besieged by a populace yearning for something else. Due to our decreasing influence in the region, whether that something is benign to America and its interest is largely out of our hands. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq has caused a realignment of former allies in the region. In the interest of personal safety, current and former partners are moving closer to those who we spent blood and money defeating.
The erratic choices we made concerning Libya and Syria have added fuel to the fire. In 2011 President Obama acted militarily in Libya, which led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. The White House claimed authorization under the WPR was unnecessary. Last year Obama drew a Red Line regarding chemical warfare attacks by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. When those chemical weapons were ultimately used, Obama’s Red Line remark pushed us towards military intervention. Facing lack of support here at home, Obama chose to go to Congress for authorization. The lack of appetite for further involvement doomed that avenue, and we watched while Russia’s Putin took that as an opportunity to provide leadership to that region. Assuredly Putin was not the only one who noticed the meltdown of our foreign policy, along with the disarray in the political sector as to whether the WPR was legal or not.
This debate is having a real impact on issues of importance to our allies. Entities that wish us harm are using the vacuum created by our withdrawal from the forefront of geopolitical leadership to make destabilizing moves on several fronts. Even now in Ukraine, Putin is regaining control over former territories with impunity. A leader such as Putin, who not only has exhibited no compunction to follow norms established by the world community, now no longer fears ramifications from the US. Even though we signed agreements to defend Ukraine in return for their disarmament, our current status as a world leader lends no credence to that threat.
Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) recently introduced war powers legislation on the Senate floor based on recommendations from the National War Powers Commission. This legislation would repeal the WPR through the enactment of a War Powers Consultation Act, which would require greater involvement of both the legislative and executive branches when engaging in military action. Senator Kaine said this bill would allow the president up to seven days during which he can use military force without authorization. After seven days, both chambers of Congress would have to vote to continue military action. While we as a free people have no desire to enter into conflicts in other parts of the world, if that response is necessary, should we not have clear and concise rules of engagement?