When the President declared that he didn’t intend to be bound by FISA, and would tap anyone’s phone he wanted with or without a warrant, that was a problem. Congress had passed a law specifically forbidding such behavior because it had been abused before. Those abuses had been secret, so the violations of citizens’ liberties were not discovered until government agencies had to come clean in the aftermath of Watergate.
The problem confronting citizens concerned about their civil liberties is that there isn’t a clear way to resolve these violations of constitutional rights today. There is a battle within the courts over whether they are permitted to review the secret decisionmaking process behind this illegal invasion of our liberties. The Congress is still trying to determine what law they might be able to pass that would actually and consistently regulate government intrusions on the privacy and liberties of citizens and residents of this nation.
Unfortunately, the same problem confronts us in Iraq.
The President declared his intention to send more troops to Iraq, and seems determined to do so no matter what the nation or Congress might say.
There is serious debate in Congress over how to deal with this situation. Some Congresscritters are suggesting that the imminent supplemental funding bill for Iraq be written to forbid funds from being spent to raise the number of troops in theater above some set limit without Congressional authorization. Thus, the money could be spent on troop rotations, equipment could be maintained, soldiers fed, schools painted, traffic directed, wounds healed, bodies shipped home for burial. The danger, of course, is that this President has shown little interest in Congressional limits on his power. If he is given the money, what’s to say that he’ll spend it as Congress instructed. And if he sends troops in theater but slows the rate at which they are withdrawn (which is apparently the plan anyway), what could Congress do then?
It wouldn’t be the first time a President decided to go this route. In Theodore Roosevelt, an Autobiography that great president recounted a tale much like this. Having spent much of his career advocating for and building a great American Navy, the President decided that he wanted to send that Navy on a world tour, to display its great strength, and to declare the entry of America into global events. The problem was that Congress had no interest in spending money on such an expedition. He writes only a few years later:
The head of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs announced that the fleet should not and could not go because Congress would refuse to appropriate the money…. However, I announced in response that I had enough money to take the fleet around the Pacific anyhow, that the fleet would certainly go, and that if Congress did not choose to appropriate enough money to get the fleet back, why, it would stay in the Pacific. There was no further difficulty about the money.
At the time, the consequences were relatively modest, if not salutary. Roosevelt’s Navy did what no one thought possible, and our neighbors on the Pacific and the Atlantic knew that American interests were not to be trifled with. The fleet helped in the recovery efforts after an earthquake in Italy, getting some good will out of the deal.
The effects if the President pulls this same trick would be dramatically worse. Congress will be left with few options for carrying out the clear wishes of the American people that we not escalate the war in Iraq. Soldiers will die for a mission doomed to failure by incompetence in the White House. Iraq will descend further into chaos, and the ethnic cleansing will accelerate. We’ve seen in other countries that it can take generations before a nation recovers from an ethnic cleansing.
It looks like Congress is moving with caution, trying to find a strategy that will actually bring our occupation of Iraq under some sort of democratic control, and hopefully set that nation and this one on a better course. The worst possible outcome would be if the President decided to strand us all in harm’s way.