The wave of “Tea Party” activism and renewed interest in the Constitution in the wake of the 2008 elections has mostly been fueled by a rightfully-deserved fear of the tyranny and reckless disregard for the rule of law that the current administration has displayed. Attend a local Tea Party event and you’ll likely encounter healthy, much-needed discussions on the 10th Amendment rights of the state, the protection of the inherent rights of the individual via the 1st and 2nd Amendments, the unconstitutionality of wasteful federal programs, and even once-fringe talking points such as repealing the 17th Amendment.
Quite often, however, the Constitution is lost on many when the topic of discussion turns to foreign policy and the so-called “War on Terror.” At a recent GOP primary debate that I attended (sponsored by the local Tea Party), several candidates were asked about national security, the role of America’s foreign policy, and what to do about the rising threat of Iran. Despite drooling over their love of the Constitution for the rest of the evening, the candidates didn’t mention the founding document once in their responses to these issues. One of the candidates, in fact, could be quoted as saying “If Israel bombed Iran, I’d slap them on the back and buy them a drink.” Several other candidates pledged their allegiance to defending Israel at all costs. Another candidate responded that the goal of American foreign policy should be to “help nations” and to “pressure nations that do not comply.” All of these statements drew more cheers than boos from the crowd.
From whence springs this disconnect between so-called “constitutionalists” and their eagerness to abandon all mention of the Constitution as it relates to our world empire? Since the GOP establishment takeover of the national Tea Party – seems funny that the rugged individualism that the Tea Party movement represents would even have a national organization, doesn’t it? – it seems that most of the Tea Parties have devolved into throngs of Republican dissenters who only take issue when “the other guy” is the one shredding the Constitution, while using the Amendments, clauses, and Founders’ quotes that support their agenda.
To start, any war is inherently unconstitutional unless formally declared. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the power “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” Despite the insistence among today’s neoconservatives to refer to Afghanistan and Iraq as “wars” rather than “occupations,” such a declaration has never been made. In fact, today’s “wars” resemble the Founders’ reason for granting the most crucial elements of foreign policy to Congress rather than to the executive branch. James Madison summarized it in an address to the Continental Congress:
“In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of war, has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.”
If the Tea Partiers are truly small-government conservatives who wish to know and adhere to the will of the Founders, they would do well to recognize that Mr. Madison’s words have come to fruition: Our head, the government, has become much too large for our national body. That standing military force stands not only within our borders, but in the far reaches of the globe. That overgrown Executive has been a constant over the last half-century, and has been no safe companion to liberty indeed. It is no less essential – and perhaps more so – to limit the powers of our government’s military conquest than it is to limit their power to spend, if a responsible government is the goal. Conservatives should demand, at the very least, that these wars be declared through the formal Congressional process.
Getting back to the actual language of the Constitution, however, provides an alternative to the wars altogether. Many objectors to declaring the war have stated that, because this war is on terrorism and not on a nation, it would be impossible to define the enemy in such a way as to make the declaration valid. (Apparently, the fact that Congress passed a resolution entitled “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002” in lieu of formally declaring war on the nation is lost on these revisionists or those who lead them.) The Constitutional solution to such a war – a war on a multi-national terrorist organization with specific individual targets – is to use the second part of the aforementioned statement: Letters of Marque and Reprisal.
Remember the “deck of cards” employed by the Bush administration to identify the highest-ranking members of the Baath Party during the first few years of America’s occupation of Iraq? If the U.S. wanted to abide by its supreme law – and if George W. Bush wanted to uphold his noninterventionist campaign rhetoric – it would have gone after these targets specifically by issuing letters of marque and reprisal against each of them. These letters would have put bounties on the capture of these individuals, and mercenaries (or perhaps the Iraqi citizens themselves) would have been given ample incentive to bring these people to justice. Such a strategy would have cost us very little money, and very few American lives, when compared to our current state of affairs, and it would have kept the restrictive checks of the Constitution intact. A similar strategy could have been employed with Osama bin Laden, members of the Taliban, members of Hamas, and so on.
Tea Partiers, however, seem none too interested in hearing and processing the Constitutional merits of the Bush administration’s foreign policy decisions. Most often, such emotional appeals as “Everything changed on 9/11!” are utilized in defense of legal ignorance – as if, for the first 214 years of the Constitution, there were no organizations or individuals in the world with the desire or capability to incur violence upon citizens. Never mind that the first recorded incident of air sabotage occurred in 1933, that the Statue of Liberty was bombed by Croatian nationalists in 1980, or that “terrorism” as a term is indefinable and that a “war” on such a subversive tactic could never be won. Much like the federal “War on Drugs” or the “War on Poverty,” a war on an idea is perpetual so long as individualism creates differences of opinion, lifestyle, religion, and personal ability.
If Tea Partiers want to be influential and philosophically consistent, they will study and consider the Constitutional merits of all current political issues, not just those that advance their own political objectives. Ignoring the Founders’ words on foreign policy, while quoting them on domestic and fiscal issues, is hypocritical at best. Perhaps, at the very least, they will begin to make the serious inquiries on foreign policy that Ron Paul has raised: “Besides, how are we going to pay for it?”