Bring war out of shadows

Paul McHale

is a former member of Congress (1993-99) from Pennsylvania, former assistant secretary of defense (2003-09), and a retired Marine colonel with 33 years of active and reserve service; he was the senior U.S. adviser to the Afghan National Police in 2007

We need a national debate, and legislation recently introduced by Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Tim Kaine (D., Va.) provides the opportunity. This bipartisan legislation focuses on a long-overdue reassessment and likely repeal of the 1973 War Powers Act. But the real issue for our country is much larger than that.

Through a combination of evolving defense policies, spanning many years and multiple presidential administrations, the United States is now capable of going to war without the consent of the governed. The implications of that reality are deeply troubling for our democracy and ultimately our national character.

How did the American people become so disconnected - morally, politically, and financially - from the fighting done in their name? There are some pretty clear answers.

The first answer is economic. The Sept. 11 attack required the United States to pursue an immediate military response. We had no choice. But driven by political expediency, President George W. Bush and the Congress unwisely chose to pay for the ensuing decade of war by charging it to our national credit card. We had the will to fight, but not the will to pay. As a result, at least in the short term, the American people were buffered from the economic burden of the conflict. Quite literally, they weren't invested in the fight. The $1.5 trillion war debt will now be passed to our children.

The second answer relates very directly to the actual war fighters. Although it has produced the most capable fighting force in our country's history, the all-volunteer military has also resulted in an unintended consequence: During the last decade, only a small percentage of Americans have been deployed into combat. They and their families have had a life experience far different from most others. After the loss of his son in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Kelly captured the issue well when he said: "America as a whole is certainly not at war. Not as a country. Not as a people. Today, only a tiny fraction - less than a percent - shoulder the burden of fear and sacrifice, and they shoulder it for the rest of us."

The third answer is operational. Very early on, the Obama administration elected to pursue its war aims through heavy operational reliance upon the CIA. And that approach has clearly worked. It has decimated our terrorist adversaries and minimized U.S. military casualties. But it came with a huge cost: inadequate congressional oversight, limited media coverage, and almost total citizen disengagement.

For five years, President Obama has conducted a war in the shadows, relentlessly killing and incapacitating our terrorist adversaries, often by CIA drone strikes along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and throughout the Horn of Africa. Undeniably, at least at the operational level, it has been effective. But is that enough? Does this approach to war meet the intent of our Constitution's war powers provisions? Is it consistent with our national character? Has it enabled this president to kill without sufficient democratic accountability? And does it set a chilling precedent for future combat operations, potentially enabling an abuse of discretion by some future president?

No president should ever be allowed to conduct a war without political ownership. No president should be allowed to pursue an armed conflict without explaining the rationale to the American people and asking them to pay for it. No American war should ever be fought primarily by the CIA. And no U.S. military personnel should ever be ordered into harm's way without substantial congressional oversight.

War inevitably involves enormous sacrifice, and when war is necessary, that sacrifice should be shared by the nation. Throughout our country's history, engaging and inspiring the American people to accept and support that sacrifice has been at the core of presidential leadership. At least until recently.

The War Powers legislation sponsored by Sens. McCain and Kaine will give us a chance to think seriously about these issues. And the ensuing discussion shouldn't just be in the Congress. It needs to be at the dinner table.

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