Does Trump or Biden offer more hope for peace? Is one less apt to resort to arms – unconstitutionally – after swearing next January 20 to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution"?
Voters, especially antiwar voters, need to know. A chief executive’s role in war-making has become literally a matter of life and death. Yet it gets little or no attention in presidential campaigns. Sure, health, climate, race, and finances are major issues. So is war and survival.
Our nation should be discussing the war power: what’s lawful and what’s not; how to prevent a nuclear holocaust; and our ceaseless wars.
Below, I summarize those three issues, following each with three questions I’d like to ask both candidates. Then come highlights of their war-peace records, first Trump’s, then Biden’s.
"If you’re elected – "
1. War and law. James Madison, often called Father of the Constitution, wrote (1793): "The power to declare war … is fully and exclusively vested in the legislature…. The executive has no right, in any case, to decide the question…." It means that under the Constitution, only Congress can authorize war.
On his own, Truman sent men to war in Korea in 1950, usurping congressional authority (under Article I, Section 8). Later presidents have imitatively started other unauthorized wars. Critics have called them illegal under international law too. It forbids aggression, i.e. anyunprovoked attack or invasion.
A. Will you order any war, or act of war, if Congress has not specifically authorized it?
B. Is it all right to attack a nation that has not harmed us?
C. Was the 2003 war on Iraq justified?
2. The nuclear peril. Russia and U.S. combined have over 12,000 nuclear bombs, some aimed at each other on high alert. These could end human life. The World Court said (1996) their use would violate international law by dooming civilians. In 2017, 122 UN members approved a treaty to ban nukes.
A. Will you use a nuclear weapon?
B. Should such weapons remain in one man’s hands?
C. Will you sign the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?
3. Current wars and policies. US treaties require peaceful solutions to disputes. Instead, we wage catastrophic wars – in Korea, Indochina, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc. Relations with Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela grow tense. US forces man some 800 global bases.
A. Will you continue, expand, or end our current military operations?
B. What, if anything, will you do to settle differences peacefully?
C. What becomes of relations with Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela?
When President Obama proposed bombing Syria, Donald Trump repeatedly objected, e.g. "If Obama attacks Syria and innocent civilians are hurt and killed, he and the US will look very bad!" (8/30/13).
As a candidate (since 6/16/15), Trump was hawk and dove. You took your choice. On Fox News he advised killing families along with ISIS fighters (12/2/15). Speaking in Washington, DC, (4/27/16): "Our goal is peace and prosperity, not war and destruction….
"Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct…. You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy. A super power understands that caution and restraint are really, truly signs of strength…. We want to bring peace to the world…. America will continue and continue forever to play the role of peacemaker."
The same speech had meat for hawks: "I will not hesitate to deploy military force when there is no alternative. But if America fights, it must only fight to win. I will never send our finest into battle unless necessary…." Plainly Trump never absorbed the constitutional principle that Congress, not the president, decides whether to deploy military force.
Once Trump entered the White House, war and aggression did indeed appear to be his "first instinct."
He bombed Syria, civilians and soldiers alike; intensified existing, undeclared warfare in Asia and Africa; and loosened rules of engagement, causing families unparalleled casualties.
Battles erupted in places like Niger and Yemen. A ground raid on a Yemeni village killed up to 25 civilians. Like Obama, Trump has aided the Saudi-led bombings of Yemen with weapons and intelligence. He vetoed a congressional resolution to end US involvement there (4/16/19). Bombs continued striking civilians in homes, hospitals, markets, buses, and elsewhere.
In Afghanistan, the MOAB, largest non-nuclear US bomb, was detonated for the first time. Thereupon Hamid Karzai, former Afghan president, decried "the inhuman and most brutal use of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons."
Trump has considered giving commanders "battlefield nukes" – as powerful as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. He renewed Obama’s trillion-dollar nuclear "modernization." Trump reputedly asked, "If we have them, why don’t we use them?"
He assassinated Iran’s top general and presses harsh sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. He sent warships into the Persian Gulf and ordered bombing of Iran but changed his mind in time. He seized Iranian tankers with fuel for Venezuela.
On the peaceful side, Trump met Russia’s Putin and North Korea’s Kim, easing tensions; and he has allowed Afghan peace talks.
Regressing, Trump renounced these two treaties: (1) Reagan-Gorbachev’s INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces), which eliminated nearly 2,700 missiles; (2) Open Skies, which allays suspicions by mutual reconnaissance flights. He thereby neglected presidential duty to enforce the laws and usurped Congress’s legislative function. (Under the Constitution, Article VI, a treaty is law. So repeal requires another law.)
He claims he repeatedly warned against invading Iraq. False. A month before Congress’s 2002 vote on Iraq, Howard Stern asked Trump, "Are you for invading Iraq?" Trump replied, "Yeah. I guess so. I wish the first time it was done correctly." Hear the interview (9/10/02).
The war-peace record of former Vice-President Joseph R. Biden Jr. also is partly hawkish, partly dovelike. In 1991, as a senator from Delaware, he opposed Bush Senior’s war on Iraq over its seizure of Kuwait. In 2002 he backed Bush Junior’s war over Iraqi WMDs, nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction."
In 1990 Biden affirmed Congress’s war power. One man deciding war was "tyranny." But in 1995 he pushed Bill Clinton to bomb Serbia. When Clinton did so in 1999, Biden urged him not to let up. Despite formal congressional opposition, Clinton bombed for 78 days, killing about 2,000.
Aiming at fighting al Qaeda, Senator Biden endorsed the Afghan war launched by Bush Jr. in October 2001. As vice-president, Biden resisted Obama’s 2009 anti-Taliban escalation and advocated withdrawing combat troops, keeping some forces in Afghanistan for "counterterrorism." Showing further independence, the VP opposed bombing Libya and arming Syrian rebels.
He favors normal relations with Cuba. Like Trump, he wants Venezuelan sanctions and Maduro’s ouster.
War with Iran "would be a disaster," Biden said. He has supported the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump renounced.
Biden unquestioningly accepted June’s press allegation of Russian "bounties" to kill US troops in Afghanistan. Intelligence splits on its veracity. Earlier, Biden swallowed lies about Iraqi WMDs and unproven allegations of gas use by Syria.
Biden said (2/16/19), "The America I see cherishes … the rule of law." But he had praised the 2011 execution of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, ordered by Obama. The accused got no trial. He was just shot. Biden initially opposed the mission.
Also defying law was the 2003 Iraq invasion. It violated three US treaties prohibiting aggression. Biden voted (10/11/02) to let Bush Jr. invade and, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, verbally supported him.
On video, Biden addresses the Senate and echoes administration falsehoods: "Saddam is dangerous … possesses chemical and biological weapons … is seeking nuclear weapons."
Saddam Hussein, he charges, kept out UN weapons inspectors. War authorization would "force Saddam to face the choice between inspectors and invaders" Yet weeks earlier The New York Times headlined, "UN Inspectors Can Return Unconditionally, Iraq Says."
Authorizing war means, not a "rush to war," but a "march to peace and security." (Shades of Orwell!)
Bush attacked in March 2003. At the University of Delaware, May 2004: "We had to go into Iraq" because "Saddam had violated every single commitment he made and warranted being taken down." (Many thousands were "taken down" too.)
Asked on "Meet the Press" (11/27/05) if his vote was a "mistake," he replied, "It was a mistake to assume the president would use the authority we gave him properly … authority to unite the world to isolate Saddam…. We went too soon … without sufficient force … without a plan." Biden did not denounce the war itself.
He wrote, in a 2007 book, "…The president was giving personal assurances that he would try every avenue of diplomacy before he took the country to war."
Congress’s resolution did not require diplomacy. Originating in the White House, it said: "The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."
Determining whether force is "necessary and appropriate" is Congress’s constitutional function. "The continuing threat posed by Iraq" was a false premise. (The US posed a continuing threat to Iraq.) And no UN resolution called for war.
Paul W. Lovinger, of San Francisco, is a journalist, author, editor, and antiwar activist (see www.warandlaw.org).