First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
I know this might sound like a radical suggestion, but ... isn't it time for President Bush to ask Congress for a declaration of war?
After all, the Constitution says that only Congress has the power to declare war.
For more than a generation, now, we have embarked on our wars without benefit of a congressional declaration. That's because our wars have been non-wars -- "emergencies" or "police actions" rather than "wars."
The official reason for giving the President the power to commit U.S. troops to combat abroad without a declaration is that in emergency situations, there isn't time for Congress to act.
In fact, this power was made official in the War Powers Act, which granted the President power to get our kids killed in combat without asking anybody's permission -- but Congress retained the power to stop the war after it started.
Let's just ignore the fact that it would be disastrous in most circumstances for Congress actually to exercise that power and stop a war in the middle.
The fact is that there are war situations that can't wait for congressional decision-making.
But those situations are quite rare, and the War Powers Act is mostly used so that Presidents can fight wars that Congress would not support.
If Congress had been asked in advance, it is extremely doubtful that our military would have overthrown Noriega in Panama or ejected the Communist government in Antigua. Even with the Gulf War, President Bush's father claimed that he did not need Congressional authority in order to attack Iraq -- and there was serious doubt whether Congress would support a declaration. (After our victory, of course, you couldn't find a Congressman willing to admit to having opposed the war.)
So the War Powers Act is usually invoked in order to sidestep the Constitution, taking the decision about warmaking out of the hands of our elected representatives.
I happen to think that the outcome in Panama, Antigua, and Kuwait was excellent and the world is a better place because those actions were taken.
But other actions in Lebanon, Somalia, and Khartoum were disastrous mistakes.
And even when we took a rightful action, one can't help but wonder if evading the Constitution might be too high a price to pay.
I dislike Constitutional rewrites without formal amendment. I dislike it when judges do it, and I dislike it just as much when Congress or the President does it.
It is too much power in the hands of one person, for the President to be able not only to decide how to wage war, but also when and against whom.
This is a matter of life and death for American soldiers, and the American people have a right to insist that legal forms be strictly followed.
If George W. Bush had asked for a declaration of war in order to attack Afghanistan, he would have gotten it. There was no reason not to ask for it. It's not as if the Afghans were surprised when we started bombing them. Congress would have given the President a declaration of war within thirty minutes, if he had asked. They would have done it in closed session, if he had asked.
He didn't ask.
He should have.
And he should ask, right now, for a declaration of war before we take any further action against any other country.
There are those who would claim that this would be a mistake because it would limit the President to making war against only those countries specifically named in the declaration.
But the declaration could be made sufficiently broad as to give the President the warmaking options he needs.
A declaration of war against "all nations providing terrorist organizations with financial or military support, training, or safe haven, including but not limited to Iraq under the government of Saddam Hussein" would do the job.
The President would have all the powers needed to make surprise strikes against terrorist staging areas in terrorist-sponsoring nations.
What matters is that Congress, not opinion polls, would have made this an official undertaking of the United States.
And there would be other specific benefits. With a formal declaration, treason laws would unequivocally come into play against those few Americans who might provide aid and comfort to terrorists within our borders.
If the war took a turn for the worse (which I think likely), there would be legal grounds for national oil rationing -- which will almost certainly happen before this struggle is over.
And, with a formal, legal declaration, the war could be continued to victory even if it becomes unpopular.
Right now, because it is undeclared, this is "President Bush's War." Because he and the war are still popular, that doesn't matter.
But with comedians like Tom Daschle and Jay Leno searching for every possible way to ridicule and diminish President Bush, who knows how long the popularity of the President, or his war, will last.
And the fact remains that we -- and the rest of the civilized world -- are in so much peril from our present enemies that regardless of President Bush's popularity, we must continue fighting this war, resolutely and thoroughly, until we win.
A formal declaration would raise this war above any one person or institution. If we are to win it, it must be America's war.
And the Constitution tells us that the only way to accomplish that is by an act of Congress.
Whether the President wants such a declaration or not, the grownups in Congress -- there are a handful in both houses -- should introduce bills to that effect.
Of course the Democrats in the Senate would use the debate over the declaration to snipe at President Bush and to try to put limitations on his ability to act as Commander-in-Chief.
But in the present political situation, fighting the President on this would be a disaster for the Democrats, and despite the posturing and posing that would go on, a good, workable declaration would quickly pass.
Even if the debate took a long time, the fact that it was under discussion would not revoke the War Powers Act -- the war against Iraq already has sufficient legal foundation to move forward. The declaration of war is needed so we'll be ready for future contingencies.
Besides, isn't our side the one that stands for democracy, freedom, and rule of law?
Don't we actually believe in representative government?
Mr. President, let's put our claims on the line. If we stand for democracy, then let's trust it. If we're defending the Constitution, then let's use it.
And if President Bush doesn't act, then let's see if some lone Congressman -- like Congressman Coble, for instance -- won't start agitating for America to remember what it means to be American, and get the Constitution back into our government.
If we aren't going to follow the Constitution, how can we ask a single American soldier to die for it?
Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.