By Jay Conley
The timing was coincidental, but it reinforced the importance of the process American leaders use for deciding to go to war. As President Barack Obama made a televised address to the nation Tuesday evening regarding whether to take military action against Syria for using chemical weapons against its own people, the George Washington University Writing Program was hosting the first in a series of collegiate team debates about war powers in the Jack Morton Auditorium.
The debates are sponsored by the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) and the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Participating teams in addition to GW included Georgetown University, James Madison University, University of Mary Washington, University of Pittsburgh and the U.S. Naval Academy.
Former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, director and C.E.O. of the Miller Center, moderated the debate, with opening remarks made by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
Sen. Kaine, along with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is leading an effort to update the 1973 War Powers Resolution. He wants to lay out a clear process in which Congress and the president collaborate on whether, and when, to engage in military action. He called the recommendations of the Miller Center’s War Powers Commission “a strong starting point.”
“It’s not right to ask men and women to go into harm’s way on behalf of the nation if there isn’t a political consensus supporting the mission that they have to sacrifice for,” said Sen. Kaine. “None of these issues, Syria or other issues we face today, whether it be Iran or North Korea, none of them are easy. But I think they are made harder because of the fact that we don’t have a clear, consultative norm that is accepted and has been accepted. We can fix this in a way that respects the constitutional prerogatives of both branches, that is more likely to lead to the kind of political consensus that the American public deserves, and that our men and women in uniform deserve.”
The War Powers Commission, chaired by former Secretaries of State James Baker and Warren Christopher, issued a unanimous report in 2007 calling for the repeal of the War Powers Resolution and replacing it with a proposed War Powers Consultation Act.
The act has five main principles. It provides that the president shall consult with Congress before deploying U.S. troops into “significant armed conflict,” described as combat operations lasting, or expected to last, more than a week. It defines the types of hostilities that would or would not be considered “significant armed conflicts.” It creates a new Joint Congressional Consultation Committee, which includes leaders of both houses as well as the chair and ranking members of key committees.
It also establishes a permanent bipartisan staff with access to national security and intelligence information necessary to conduct its work, and calls on Congress to vote up or down on significant armed conflicts within 30 days.
Debaters focused on these recommendations, with half of the schools, including GW, arguing in the affirmative, and the other half arguing against updating the resolution.
“We live in a world in which war is so common, that is doesn’t seem radical or shocking,” argued GW student Katie Stasaski. “In such a world it is essential that our leaders develop a pragmatic process for the declaration of war,” adding,” we are more dependent than ever on our leaders to wield American power justly, effectively and responsibly.”
Debaters arguing against updating the War Powers Resolution argued that the proposed act implies that Congress will be able to agree on a war strategy when in reality in recent years elected officials have rarely been able to come to a consensus on such issues.
“The problem is politics, not the law,” argued Samantha Perez, a James Madison University student.
The Miller Center and CEDA will sponsor three more debates on the war-powers issue. Subsequent debates will focus on warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention and drone strikes.