Congressman Mark Pocan holds the U.S. House seat that was once occupied by Tammy Baldwin, who in 2002 and 2003 bravely opposed the rush by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to launch an ill-thought out and unnecessary invasion of Iraq. Before Baldwin, the seat was held by Robert Kastenmeier, one of the earliest and steadiest critics of the Vietnam War. Before Kastenmeier, it was held by Robert M. La Follette, whose eventual opposition (as the state’s senior senator) to military adventurism and war profiteering was so epic in character that it helped to define our national understanding of what it means to be a congressional dissenter against the kingly excesses of an imperial presidency.
So Pocan, a student of political history who collects the memorabilia from La Follette’s many campaigns, well understands the anti-war legacy that he is called to maintain. He has always embraced it, establishing one of the most consistent records in the chamber of objecting to the penchant of presidents of both parties to engage on unwarranted and undeclared war-making. So it should come as no surprise that Pocan is raising the alarm on Donald Trump’s ill-advised and dangerous escalation of tensions with Iran.
“The Trump administration continues to double down on a failed policy of confrontation with Iran, rather than diplomacy,” said the congressman from Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District. “While it buddies up to dictators around the globe, it threatens peaceful relations in a region that has already seen too much destabilization.”
Pocan’s concern is well founded. The experienced counselors who initially advised an ill-informed and erratic president — former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and, to lesser extent, national security adviser H.R. McMaster — have resigned. The president is now surrounded by neocon hawks like national security adviser John Bolton, political hacks like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and military-industrial complex “yes” men like acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
Trump and his advisers have grown increasingly provocative in their pronouncements regarding Iran. The headlines say it all:
“U.S. sends Patriot missile system to Middle East amid Iran tensions,” reported the BBC.
“U.S. B-52 bombers reach Middle East in message to Iran,” announced Reuters.
“The U.S.-Iran Naval War of 2019: What It Could Look Like,” speculated The National Interest.
What needs to be added to the conversation is the message that Pocan brings to it: “Congress should demand that President Trump seek approval from the House and Senate before taking offensive action against Iran.”
That’s not a radical premise.
Trump, like every member of Congress, has sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. That oath requires the president and members of the House and Senate to embrace a system of separated powers in which the Congress is charged with declaring wars.
That system has decayed over the decades since Franklin Roosevelt recognized, even in the emergency moment following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, that he had a duty to obtain the declaration of war that committed the United States to fight World War II.
But it is a system that can and should be renewed. Pocan has been in the forefront of efforts to do so, working with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif., to end the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force, which successive presidents have used as an excuse to avoid seeking congressional approval for military interventions and bombing missions. He has, as well, worked with Congressman Ro Khanna, D-Calif., to pass a congressional resolution to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal assault on Yemen.
Now Congress needs to assert its authority with regard to Iran.
Pocan is not alone in recognizing this necessity.
“The ongoing saber-rattling inches us closer and closer to conflict," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., "borrowing from the same playbook that launched us into the failed invasion of Iraq, and endangering our national security, jeopardizing our diplomatic interests and alarming our allies. The consequences of war with Iran would be catastrophic, risking the lives of thousands of Americans while squandering our global reputation, with little chance of improving our long-term security.”
Arguing that “Congress must assert its constitutional authority to halt the march to war,” Udall has introduced the Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act of 2019, a Senate measure that “restores to Congress the sole power to declare war by prohibiting any funding for an unauthorized attack on Iran, thereby blocking the president from provoking an unnecessary military conflict in the Middle East.” It’s a bipartisan proposal, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. A parallel measure in the House has been sponsored by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.
Pocan has always argued, in the Wisconsin progressive tradition, that Congress must stop being “a bystander” when it comes to checking and balancing the imperial impulses of presidents. In this moment of saber-rattling by Donald Trump and John Bolton, however, that argument becomes far more necessary — and far more urgent.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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