Congress votes to limit Trump’s war-making power against Iran, but stronger action is needed

MAPA Update March 2020

Iran Wants War

by Brian Garvey

On Wednesday March 11, the US House of Representatives passed a War Powers Resolution (S.J.Res. 68) to block Trump from unilaterally starting a war with Iran, a measure passed by the Senate last month. The vote is a response to the brinkmanship of the Trump Administration which culminated in the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani, one of the most important public figures in Iran, on January 2nd. President Trump will almost certainly veto the bill as he has threatened to do publicly.

In fact, with Trump’s authorization, the Pentagon has recently bombed an Iranian-backed Shia militia in retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq that killed two US troops and a British soldier on March 11. Tensions are high in the region since Solemani’s killing, and the Iraqi government has demanded that the US withdraw its military from their country. The US Congress needs to take stronger action to prevent Trump from further escalation leading toward war.

After almost 20 years of an ever-expanding War on Terror, Congress is finally beginning to assert its most crucial responsibility: to determine if and when the US will go to war. That assumption of responsibility is undoubtedly a good thing. But how much praise do they deserve for exercising this basic function?  

Though Congress is given the sole authority to declare war by the US Constitution, lawmakers have not exercised this authority since World War II. Forgoing declarations of war, the legislature has passed a series of resolutions and authorizations for the use of military force, which have been used to sanction US wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and more. Lately Congress has failed even to pass these resolutions, yielding its most important authority to the executive branch. This cowardly abdication is breaking our system of government.

Consider the words of James Madison, the primary author of the US Constitution, who wrote, “In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.” Concerned by a concentration of power in any one institution or individual, the founders designed a system that separated the power to make war from the Commander-in-Chief, a brilliant safety measure to try to prevent tyranny and endless war. In failing to maintain its power in this most important area, Congress is failing to keep the American Republic.

Congress has the ability to prevent a war but it would have to do more than pass resolutions that President Trump can cast aside with the stroke of his veto pen. Congress still has the almighty power of the purse – and our military requires enormous funds to operate in its current mode.  Congress has the power to appropriate those funds – and authorize their use through the National Defense Authorization Act – or not. Therein lies its leverage. Yet, in a time when the Congress seems completely mired in gridlock on many other fronts, they have managed to pass this legislation 59 years in a row. The NDAA is considered one of the few ‘must pass’ pieces of legislation on the agenda every year by legislators with one eye on their corporate backers in the military-industrial complex and the other on the ads that could be run against them for failing to be sufficiently patriotic.

Knowing this, Massachusetts Peace Action focused on the NDAA throughout last year. Because of the efforts of brave Congress members such as Ro Khanna of California and our Worcester ally, Chairman of the House Rules Committee Jim McGovern, we were able to get several progressive amendments into the NDAA, including a prohibition on an unconstitutional war with Iran. When these necessary provisions were stripped out in conference with the Republican-led Senate, we lobbied our delegation to reject the hollowed- out bill, forcing a showdown with the Senate and the White House. Instead, the Democratic leadership in the House folded like origami paper, giving Trump, who many of these same Democrats have accused of being a madman and a traitor, $738 billion for his war budget with no restrictions.

We warned our Mass. congressional delegation that passing the bill would be seen by Trump as a green light to make war on Iran. Despite these warnings, Reps. Neal, Trahan, Clark, Moulton, Lynch, and Keating voted for it this past December. On cue, Trump assassinated an Iranian leader just three weeks later, an act of war. He talked about the need to prevent an “imminent” attack. That was a lie, a lie that brought us extremely close to starting another disastrous war.

Let’s be clear. The war with Iran was not stopped by Congress, but by Iranian restraint.

Our entire Massachusetts delegation voted for the War Powers Resolution that was sent to die on President Trump’s desk, but that doesn’t mean they all deserve credit for ‘#Resisting’ Trump. You do not resist a man by giving him 738 billion dollars for war, with no strings attached.  

Reps. Jim McGovern, Joe Kennedy III, and Ayanna Pressley as well as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey deserve credit for standing against war with Iran, when it mattered. The rest should be ashamed to call themselves part of the ‘resistance.’

The news cycle may have moved on, but this isn’t over yet. Donald Trump has dramatically escalated tensions throughout the Middle East. He’s abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, he’s filled his cabinet with hawks, banned people from Muslim counties from coming to the U.S. He has assassinated an Iranian military commander. Trump has sent more troops, planes, and warships to the region, adding powder to the keg. The danger is still very real.

Congress will begin negotiating the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021, a meaningful piece of legislation, as early as this May. If it does not contain severe restrictions on this president, it should not be passed. Trump’s actions are putting millions of lives and trillions of dollars at risk. Judge your member of Congress on whether they resist that.

—Brian Garvey is Mass. Peace Action’s full-time organizer and staffs its Middle East working group and the Raytheon anti-war campaign.