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Akron Beacon Journal (OH)

Is Invading Iraq Wrong? History Suggests It's A National Tradition

By James G. Wilson*

January 8, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Akron Beacon Journal (OH). All rights reserved. 

*By James G. Wilson, professor of law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University. He recently wrote The Imperial Republic: A Structural History of American Constitutionalism From the Colonial Era to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century.

The continuing debate over whether the United States should invade Iraq has moral and pragmatic aspects. Those favoring the use of force argue that we have an ethical obligation to replace the tyrant Saddam Hussein with a democratic government. They also raise the fear of Hussein's using weapons of mass destruction to threaten his neighbors and to attack the United States by arming terrorists.

Less emphasized are the benefits of having significant influence over Iraqi oil supplies, a geopolitical development that would please individual commuters and American corporations eager to profit from the development of Iraq's battered infrastructure. The most ruthless advocates foresee political benefits at home and abroad in having the world divided along religious lines.

These multiple motives explain why many war hawks do not care if the United States or the United Nations inspectors fail to generate clear evidence of Iraq's noncompliance.

One group of opponents, including some with impressive conservative pedigrees, emphasizes the numerous risks of invasion: high casualties, a spike in oil prices, destabilization of the entire Mideast, alienation of allies and an interminable entanglement in the region. In terms of military strategy, any invasion distracts us from the continuing war against terrorism and the even greater threats that appear to be emerging from North Korea.

More progressive opponents tend to argue that the United States does not have the legal or moral authority to violate other countries' sovereignty whenever it desires. Such a principle would justify any country invading any other country. Any invasion, whether authorized by Congress or not, would violate America's deepest traditions of nonaggression.

They also point out that there would be numerous civilian casualties (already numbering in the hundreds of thousands due to economic sanctions) and a polarization of the world along religious and cultural lines. Internally, our country would bitterly divide, reviving some of the worst aspects of the 1960s.

A quick review of American history cannot resolve this issue, but it places the controversy into context. This nation's leadership has frequently invoked both moralistic and practical arguments to justify aggressive actions in foreign affairs. President Bush has numerous constitutional and historical precedents to help justify any ultimate decision.

The following examples are not exhaustive -- the list is very long -- but each offers a particular insight into the structure and purposes of our constitutional system.

In 1775, a year before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress authorized an invasion of Canada. Not only did that Congress want additional territories, but it also sought to drive a permanent wedge between the Colonies and England and put England on the military defensive.

These geopolitical considerations were supplemented by moral arguments. Gen. Schuyler, who led the invasion, told the Canadians that the ``only views of Congress were to restore to them those rights which every subject of the British empire, of whatever religious sentiment he may be, is entitled to.''

In the course of defending their proposed Constitution, the Federalists frequently used the word ``empire'' to describe the United States. For them, there was no clear moral distinction between a ``republic'' and an ``empire.''

That distinction emerged in the 20th century, reflected in the Star Wars movies that pit an evil empire against a fragile republic. One federalist author characterized the new system as a ``republican empire.''

The same year that the Constitution was ratified, David Ramsay wrote a very popular history of the American Revolution that concluded with praise for the recently enacted Constitution. Ramsay explained that the internal system would be republican, providing a foundation of peace and liberty for Americans. But the new nation needed a vigorous executive branch that would have the power of a monarchy when confronting foreign policy. In terms of foreign policy, the president is effectively a monarch for four years.

In the famous case Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall explained that the law had little to do with foreign affairs; the president is ``accountable only to his country in his political character, and to his own conscience.''

Although Thomas Jefferson had often criticized loose interpretations of the Constitution when in opposition, Jefferson adopted a monarchial approach once he became president. He launched a military strike against the Barbary pirates without prior congressional authorization.

More important, he made the Louisiana Purchase despite the lack of clear textual authority. The purchase was consistent with Jefferson's reluctance to engage in war. He believed the new nation should expand through ``compact and equality.''

James Madison, who helped draft the Constitution to expand republican norms across the continent, became president after his friend Jefferson stepped down. Madison oversaw two invasions of Florida. He and Congress plunged the country into the War of 1812 by once again invading Canada. The nation would rely upon force, not just negotiations, to expand its jurisdiction.

President Monroe expanded American influence even further by announcing the Monroe Doctrine, which prohibited any country aside from the United States from expanding in the new hemisphere. Andrew Jackson was ruthless with Native Americans. President Polk's generals provoked Mexico into starting the Mexican-American War. That easy victory, opposed by Whigs like Abraham Lincoln, led to the control of the Southwest and California.

The Spanish-American War culminated the nation's formal territorial expansion. When inhabitants from colonies in the Philippines and Puerto Rico sought constitutional protection in the Supreme Court, the court rejected Jefferson's notions of ``compact and equality.'' According to the court, those residents, who came from ``other races politically inexperienced and undeveloped,'' could rely upon ``Anglo-Saxon character.''

Congress, not the Constitution, would be the main source of any rights.

The United States continued to extend its influence in the 20th century by frequently applying military pressure throughout South America. Recent examples include the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, and Panama.

Several principles emerge from this history:

* From its moment of origin, the United States has aggressively enhanced its power. A large percentage of the electorate has usually supported this goal.

* American leaders have always invoked inspirational norms such as patriotism, republicanism, democracy and individual rights to support their actions. But it seems impossible to separate those more noble aspirations from the usual, tawdrier political motives of increasing the wealth and power of one's nation, one's political party and even one's friends and family. Like the rest of us, our leaders operate from a wide range of beliefs and desires.

* The president has enormous discretion, barely tempered by law, to implement foreign policy. President Bush's decision to seek congressional authorization reinforces the desirable precedent established by his father, who first obtained congressional approval before driving Iraq out of Kuwait. But there is no clear legal recourse if the sitting president ultimately ignores either Congress or the United Nations.

The battle would be primarily political. In theory, Congress could use its war, appropriations or even impeachment powers to rein in a reckless president.

* The United States has engaged in defensive wars. It has often launched aggressive military actions. At least in terms of the historical record, there is nothing ``un-American'' about invading Iraq. But the record also reveals that many Americans have protested (usually ineffectively) against virtually all of these conflicts. It is as American to dissent as it is to wage war.

Fortunately, President Bush does not operate in a political vacuum. Responding to domestic and foreign public opinion, he already has gone to Congress and the United Nations instead of immediately launching an attack.

Soon, he will have to make the crucial decision of whether to use force even if there is no obvious proof that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Will Bush declare a brilliant diplomatic victory, which actually strengthened the United Nations by forcing Iraq to comply with international requirements? Or will he ultimately undermine any international process by going to war without U.N. authorization?

Finally, does any U.N. support legitimate an invasion or is it primarily a cover for an American agenda to increase its already predominant influence? There will be no consensus to such questions, but it is vital that every American become better informed about our nation's place in the world (including its checkered history). We learn that many people have many reasons to see us as a far less benign force than we tend to see ourselves.

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