June 13th, 2011, marks the 40th anniversary of the initial publication of the Pentagon Papers in the New York Times.
[I]f the hype around this belated release got a new generation to read the Pentagon Papers or at least the summaries to the various volumes (my highest hope, pretty unlikely), they’d get from them as good an understanding as they could find anywhere today of our war in Afghanistan. . . .
Different religion and language, different terrain and tactics, but the same hopeless effort to get nationalist guerrillas to quit fighting foreign invaders and the corrupt, dope-dealing despots we support; and secretly, the same irresponsible, self-serving, presidential and congressional objectives: namely, not to be charged with weakness by political rivals, or with losing a war that a few feckless or ambitious generals foolishly claim can be won. The same prospect of endless, bloody stalemate: unless public political pressure on Congress threatens to cut off the money, forcing the Executive into a negotiated withdrawal.
The Pentagon Papers didn’t explicitly present that last alternative, but their release contributed to that result, eventually. Is it too much to hope that their re-release could do the same? Yes, it is. But fortunately there are a few Congresspersons, like Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Lee, Walter Jones and Ron Paul who got that message the first time, even if the Republican and Democratic leadership hasn’t, yet.
The lessons of Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate. . . do seem to have been largely lost, especially in the last decade but even before that. There was a decade or so in the Seventies of the aggressive investigative journalism and Congressional hearings we need, including the Church and Pike committees, by journalists like Sy Hersh (one of the few who keeps up the tradition).
And then… back to unquestioning acceptance of government pronouncements and reliance on the president’s judgment formed and enacted in secret: both, totally unfounded and unwise, irresponsible in a democracy, paving the way to new Vietnams, as in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya.
Our Founders sought to prevent this. Article I, section 8 of the Constitution, for the first time in constitutional history, put the decision to go to war (beyond repelling sudden attacks) exclusively in the hands of Congress, not the president. But every president since Harry Truman in Korea—as the Pentagon Papers demonstrated up through LBJ, but beyond them to George W. Bush and Barack Obama–has violated the spirit and even the letter of that section of the Constitution (along with some others) they each swore to preserve, protect and defend.
However, as has been pointed out repeatedly by Glenn Greenwald and Bruce Ackerman, David Swanson and others, no president has so blatantly violated the constitutional division of war powers as President Obama in his ongoing attack on Libya, without a nod even to the statutory War Powers Act, that post-Pentagon Papers effort by Congress to recapture something of the role assigned exclusively to it by the Constitution.
This open disregard of a ruling statute (regardless of his supposed feelings about its constitutionality, which Obama has not even bothered to express) is clearly an impeachable offense, though it will certainly not lead to impeachment–given the current complicity of the leaders of both parties–any more than President George W. Bush’s misleading Congress into his crime against the peace, aggression, in Iraq, or President Johnson’s lies to obtain the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
Yet the most important point, as I see it, is not the secrecy and the lying, or even the blatant disregard of the Constitution, the Presidential oath and the rule of law.
As the Pentagon Papers documented for the much of the Vietnam era (we still lack, and we still need, the corresponding Papers for the Nixon policy-making, that added over twenty thousand names unnecessarily to the Vietnam Memorial and over a million deaths in Vietnam) and the last decade confirms: the point is that the Founders had it right the first time.
As Abraham Lincoln explained their intention (in defending to his former law partner William Herndon his opposition to President Polk’s deliberately provoked Mexican War): “The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”
As Lincoln put it, the alternative approach (which we have actually followed in the last sixty years) “places our President where kings have always stood.” And the upshot of that undue, unquestioning trust in the president and his Executive branch is: smart people get us into stupid (and wrongful) wars, and their equally smart successors won’t get us out of them.
Either we the people will press elected officials in Congress–on pain of losing their jobs–to take up their Constitutional responsibilities once again and to end by defunding our illegal, unjustifiable (and now, financially insupportable) military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and air attacks on Pakistan, Libya and Yemen: or those bloody stalemates will continue indefinitely.