“Congress can’t authorize the unilateral use of military force abroad without violating the first principle of international law established by the UN Charter: the sovereignty of nations.”
During his 2007 presidential campaign, Barack Obama told the Boston Globe, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat.” By “unilaterally” he meant without congressional authorization. Never mind international law codified in the UN Charter, which criminalizes unilateral military action by any nation state against another.
Six years later, in September 2013, after the first round of allegations that Syrian President Bashar al Assad had used chemical weapons, California’s District 13 Congresswoman Barbara Lee told me that she didn’t see any imminent threat to the US from Syria, so President Obama needed to seek congressional authorization to launch a military strike:
Barbara Lee: I don’t see Syria as an imminent threat. We need to engage in a debate so we can really figure out a way forward.
The use of chemical weapons – these are crimes against humanity – these are the most horrific type of crimes. We’re not even challenging that.
What’s important, though, is that when you engage our military, we have to look at the unintended consequences, the ramifications for more violence, more chemical attacks, more vulnerable populations, more civilians being killed. And regional hostilities that could take us into an unending war, which of course the president and the secretary of state do not want to happen.
Ann Garrison: With regard to the issue of imminent threat, isn’t it unlikely that Syria even has an air force that could come here or get even close without being shot out of the sky?
Barbara Lee: Well, Syria’s engaged in a civil war right now, and over 100,000 people have been killed. Whether Syria poses a national security threat, either immediate or long term, is what the president and the secretary of defense have to address.
It’s our responsibility as members of Congress to decide whether to give them the authority, once we know all the facts and once the American people have a good handle on what is taking place. It’s our responsibility to decide whether or not we should authorize the use of force or declare war.
We’re saying that we absolutely think we should be called back into Congress to engage in a debate and to vote up or down on whether we believe this warrants the use of force.
“Regional hostilities could take us into an unending war.”
Ann Garrison: Regarding the crime against humanity, the use of chemical weapons, doctors and epidemiologists have reported year after year that Iraq, particularly Basra and Fallujah, are suffering unforeseen rates of birth defects as a consequence of our toxic munitions, including depleted uranium and white phosphorous. Doesn’t this make the threat to bomb Syria for alleged chemical weapons use inconsistent to say the least?
Barbara Lee: Well, let’s stick with Syria right now. We have to explore that a little bit further, and I hope that we [Democrats] can take back the House, so we can hold hearings on what you just said, in terms of any unfortunate ramifications and negative impacts and unintended consequences. We know people around the world are suffering from all kinds of disabilities and illnesses as a result of warfare.
What’s important is, in this instance, we need to talk about the ramifications, the impact and the possible regional outbreaks that could occur and, in terms of regional stability, what that means, if in fact the use of force is engaged in.
Then, as now and ever since 2001, Barbara Lee was demanding a vote on a new congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to legalize—or not—the latest horrific phase in the War on Terror. At last Sunday’s antiwar rally in Oakland, Berkeley City Councilwoman Cheryl Davila read Lee’s renewed demand for an AUMF to the usual applause, but Congress can’t authorize the unilateral use of military force abroad without violating the first principle of international law established by the UN Charter: the sovereignty of nations. Barbara Lee has been demanding a new AUMF for the past 17 years, but why are we still applauding? Shouldn’t we instead let her know that a congressional AUMF is by nature an international crime?
I got a little rude from the very back in the crowd at the Oakland rally, but not forcefully enough to make my point, so I’m following up here in the BAR: What gives 320 million US citizens, four or five percent of the people on the planet, or their elected reps the legal or moral authority to bomb the world at will? That’s an international crime, no matter how long Congress debates it, no matter how much testimony they hear, no matter how much the New York Times and the Washington Post opine, and even if the Senate and House both vote unanimously. It’s an international crime.
The US War Powers Act of 1973—which requires the president to seek a congressional authorization for the use of military force or a declaration of war for any military action sustained longer than 60 days—didn’t change that. It’s still an international crime, no matter how many AUMFs or declarations of war Congress passes. Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, and Howard Friel explained this in a New York Times Letter to the Editor published September 14, 2015:
We concur with Bruce Ackerman (“Obama’s Betrayal of the Constitution,” Op-Ed, Sept. 12) and your editorial (“Legal Authority for Fighting ISIS,” Sept. 12) that President Obama must act within constitutional constraints upon announcing his intention to resort to force overseas against ISIS.
While the president must request and receive congressional approval within the strictures of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, as both Mr. Ackerman and your editorial rightly demand, neither Congress nor the president is free to violate the United Nations Charter’s prohibition “against the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Individual nations are bound by their international obligations regardless of their constitutional law. Thus, the reach of law here goes beyond the War Powers Resolution to the United Nations Charter.
We owe the existence of ISIS in part to the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was in violation of the charter. President Obama now seems determined to match, or exceed, the lawlessness of that decision, which, without the establishment of proper checks on the president’s war powers, is likely to be repeated by the next president, and the one after that, with perpetual war (or worse) an assured outcome.
EDWARD S. HERMAN
Northampton, Mass., Sept. 15, 2014
Barbara Lee doesn’t speak for me on this and she shouldn’t speak for any of the rest of the antiwar movement unless she drops her perennial demand for an AUMF and instead demands that the US respect international law.
US use of chemical weapons
In that 2013 conversation, Barbara Lee also said that she hoped Democrats could take back the House—as they’ve still failed to do—so they could hold hearings on the consequence of US chemical weapons use. However, the 105th Congress, with its Republican majority, held hearings about the consequence of US chemical weapons use in Iraq way back in 1997-1998. Republican Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana submitted the House Report 105-388 - GULF WAR VETERANS' ILLNESSES: VA, DOD CONTINUE TO RESIST STRONG EVIDENCE LINKING TOXIC CAUSES TO CHRONIC HEALTH EFFECTS, which said:
Our hearings convinced us the journey from cause to cure for Gulf War veterans runs through the pools, clouds and plumes of toxins in which they lived and fought. It is a journey VA and DOD might never have taken but for persistent pressure from this subcommittee, and other House and Senate panels, that forced the Pentagon to acknowledge a “watershed event''--the probable exposure of United States troops to chemical weapons fallout at Khamisiyah, Iraq.
With that first admission, the three pillars of Government denial--no credible detections, no exposures, no health effects--began to crumble. As the number of U.S. troops presumed exposed grew from 400 to almost 100,000, as the credibility of other chemical detections was sustained, and as private research probed the parallels between Gulf War illnesses and the known symptoms of chemical poisoning, some significant role for toxins in causing, triggering or amplifying neurological damage and chronic symptoms could no longer be denied.
Before Khamisiyah, voluminous and compelling, albeit circumstantial, evidence regarding neurotoxic exposures had been ignored, denied or discredited, while far less abundant evidence and far less plausible psychological theories of causation were pursued with vigor. As a result, diagnostic protocols were insensitive to exposure effects, treatments were limited and vital research was delayed.
“Denials and delays are symptomatic of a system content to presume the Gulf War produced no delayed casualties, and determined to shift the burden of proof onto sick veterans.”
Only recently were VA and DOD health registry questionnaires modified to consistently capture the best and only remaining evidence of toxic exposures: veterans' recollections. Only recently was research funded to measure the health effects of sustained, low-dose exposure to the combinations of chemicals, pharmaceuticals and environmental toxins to which Gulf War veterans were exposed.
Those denials and delays are symptomatic of a system content to presume the Gulf War produced no delayed casualties, and determined to shift the burden of proof onto sick veterans to overcome that presumption. That task has been made difficult, if not impossible, because most of the medical records needed to prove toxic causation are missing or destroyed. Nevertheless, VA and DOD insist upon reaping the benefit of any doubts created by the absence of those records.
The subcommittee believes the current presumptions about neurotoxic causes and effects should be reversed and the benefit of any doubt should inure to the sick veteran.
Finally, we reluctantly conclude that responsibility for Gulf War illnesses, especially the research agenda, must be placed in a more responsive agency, independent of the DOD and the VA.
Congressional committees and subcommittees hold a lot of hearings about things they ultimately can’t do anything about, but sometimes they at least inform, as that one did. If the DOD won’t acknowledge the effects of its chemical weapons on US troops, how could we expect them to acknowledge their effects on Iraqis, Syrians, or anyone else? The denial and coverup continued into the Iraq War and the ongoing regional war.
This is of course just a small fraction of information in the public domain that should keep Assad’s alleged chemical weapons use from dominating our national and international discourse, but we don’t drive that discourse. Corporate and state press in the US and the rest of the West do. Prop or Not rogues like the Black Agenda Report just put a few dents in it from time to time.
Ann Garrison is an independent journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes Region. She can be reached at @ AnnGarrison or [email protected] .