Another War President?

As President Obama begins to sell Congress and the American people on his plan for a time-limited U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan, genuine military and national security experts, flanked by prime-time pundits posing as experts, will parse and debate the commitment.

While we all (I hope) do our best to tune in the former and tune out the latter, we also need to recognize that the 44th commander in chief’s first major war-making decision raises two overarching sets of questions, one constitutional, the other Catholic.


The cardinal constitutional question concerns the president’s authority to commit blood and treasure to combat abroad without a formal declaration of war by the Congress. Of course Congress has not declared war since it passed six separate war declarations (Japan, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania) in the 1940s. Instead, since the Korean “police action,” Congress has issued eight “resolutions” broadly authorizing U.S. military actions abroad, including one in 1964 regarding Vietnam and one in 2001 regarding Afghanistan.

I am more hawk than dove, and I accept President Obama’s case for upping the military ante in Afghanistan. But being constitutionally nonchalant about making war is a post-1945 presidential habit that he ought to break, not repeat.

As events in Vietnam (1964–75) demonstrated, an undeclared war can become a quagmire and stretch by presidential prerogative into ad hoc military actions (invasions, espionage, bombings) against nearby noncombatant peoples and nations.

As both Afghanistan (2001 and 2009–?) and Iraq (1991–92 and 2002–?) have shown, one round of military action against unspecified enemies, waged without well-defined strategic or tactical objectives, often leads to another undeclared war.

Since World War II, presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, have invoked “national security” to justify warring in places (President Bill Clinton’s congressionally unauthorized actions in Yugoslavia in 1999) or in ways (President George W. Bush’s nods to torture-type interrogation methods after 9/11) that overstep their authority and violate constitutional or human rights.

The National Security Act of 1947 established the Department of Defense in conjunction with the Truman Doctrine and a bipartisan “containment policy” centered on Soviet- or Chinese-backed Com-munism. But nothing in that act or in the subsequent amendments to it, and nothing in controlling Supreme Court decisions dating back to the Youngstown case in 1952 (the famous judicial rebuke to President Harry S. Truman’s claim that he had the authority to seize steel mills for “national security” reasons), authorizes a president to wage war per the so-called Bush Doctrine.

As articulated in the “National Security Strategy” proposal submitted to Congress on Sept. 20, 2002, and in related 2002–8 presidential documents and speeches, the Bush Doctrine holds that because post-9/11 America is “vulnerable to terrorism of catastrophic proportions,” and because the global “war against terror” and the need for ever-expanding “homeland security” is a “permanent condition,” the president is authorized to use military and other resources largely at his discretion, including use in pre-emptive major military or other actions against foreign groups and nations that he believes threaten the United States.

President Obama will never say so, but thus far on Afghani-stan he is retracing the Bush Doctrine, not only strategically, which might or might not be defensible, but also constitutionally, which crosses this dangerous presidential-powers Rubicon for a second time and gives it bipartisan legitimacy.

Furthermore, declared and duly constitutional or not, is this likely to prove a just war? That, of course, is the cardinal Catholic question here.

In broad outline, to be just, a war must be waged to stop the lasting, grave and certain damage being done by the aggressor (here the Taliban and its allies); and there must be no other practical or effective means to stop the damage, a serious prospect of success in stopping it and a prudent hope that the killing in order to stop killing will not beget even greater evils.

I trust President Obama to wage a tolerably just, if barely constitutional, war in Afghanistan.

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Patrick Eicker
8 years 10 months ago
Presumably this piece was written before BO's speech in Oslo. Definitely more eloquent, but quite neo-conish.
C Walter Mattingly
8 years 10 months ago

These are most serious questions. Are we to be proud or ashamed of the devastation we caused their countries by bombing/invading Serbia and Iraq to overthrow the genocidal butchers Milosevic and Saddam? Are we to be proud or ashamed of not intervening militarily in Darfur or in the Hutu/Tutsi massacres?  We were unable to get UN approval for any of these actions, so were we wrong to act without the sanction of this international body?  In short, were these actions and inactions justified?

Mike Evans
8 years 10 months ago

Stop the surge. Withdraw to safe havens and then bring our people home. Train the Afghans not in military maneuvers but in police techniques and intelligence gathering. Do not rearm them with heavy artillery; they will only use it on each other and then on us. Interdict the opium trade at the borders. That will starve the Taliban and Al Queda of their funding and ability to wage chaos.

Bruce Byrolly
8 years 10 months ago

Thank you for DiJulio's article about the need for congressional approval, specific and constitutional, to wage war.

I cannot concur that President Obama will wage as just a war as can be waged.  With great respect for our excellent president, I believe he is in error.  Would that he  have brought the soldiers home, even though that would make him a one term president.

I think John Paul II said (sorry I cannot quote chapter and verse) that a just war is no longer possible, implying that war can no longer be morally justified.

Dec. 12, 2009

Christopher Kuczynski
8 years 10 months ago

What precisely is a "tolerably just war?"  It is hard for me to understand what lies between justice and injustice.  Both of them are objective realities in between which there is no realm of actions that can be labled "kind of just," "a little unjust," or "tolerably just."  The author's careless use of the term "tolerably just" underscores our limited ability, as creatures and not the creator, to know what is truly just and right.

The author makes a second fundamental error, assuming that the manner in which war is waged can be separated from the predicate for going to war in the first place.  Just war theory is about both the reasons for going to war and the manner in which the war is conducted.  If the predicate for going to war or continuing the current war in Afghanistan is wrong, there is nothing the president can do to make the situation "tolerably just" through the manner in which the war is prosecuted going foward.

The author is right to say that one fundamental tenet of "just war theory" is that "there must be no other practical or effective means to stop the damage."  But how can we know whether this is really the case, particularly given our penchant, as Americans, to seek short-term solutions to virtually every problem we face and instant gratification.  This standard assumes that we have actually tried to exhaust other available means of conflict resolution and have even tried to think of other available means when those we have traditionally used have been exhausted; something which I think we very rarely do.

I would suggest that the proper question to ask when making the grave and humbling decision to wage war on our brothers and sisters is not whether going to war is just, but whether the failure to go to war would be unjust. These are by no means the same question. The latter question will result in far fewer decisions to go to war than we have been willing to accept uncritically during the decades since World War II.

8 years 10 months ago

Deacon Mike, one place I would refer you and the author to is John Paul II's homily at Coventry Cathedral in England, where, as Britain prepared for a major aerial bombardment of the Falkland Islands, an assault that would eventually kill over 600 Argentine soldiers, our good pope had the courage to say to his hosts the following: "Today, the scale and the horror of modern warfare - whether nuclear or not - makes it totally unacceptable as a means of settling differences between nations. Was should belong to the tragic past, to history; it should find no place on humanity’s agenda for the future."

If he were alive today, I would hope that this pope would come to Washington and remind us all of what he said back in late May of 1982. Some might split hairs and say that we are not fighting another nation, so this statement doesn't apply in this case. But given the fact that England was at war with Argentina at the time, the phrase "between nations" is an even bolder move by the pope, not a qualifier. Therefore, I think it is safe to assume, given the second sentence of the statement, that John Paul would not support our country's actions in Afghanistan and would see it as the unjust war that it is.



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