“The True Flag” and Wars of Choice
Remarks to a Committee for the Republic Salon with Stephen Kinzer
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
October 26, 2017, Washington, D.C.
I’m Chas Freeman. I chair the loose, transpartisan coalition known as the Committee for the Republic. I want to welcome our members – especially the contributors who sponsor these salons and make it possible for us to air important issues that would otherwise go publicly unaddressed.
A very warm welcome too to Stephen Kinzer. Stephen, we are honored to have you back as our speaker at this evening’s discussion. Your stalwart opposition to the promiscuous interventionism that has replaced diplomacy in America’s management of its foreign relations is directly relevant to the purposes of the Committee for the Republic.
As you probably know, the Committee came into being in 2003, when many here tonight worried about how the American lurch into ill-defined wars in the Middle East might damage the civil liberties and traditions of our republic. Sadly, these concerns have proved justified, and, despite widening popular discomfort with the state of the nation, things seem to be getting worse rather than better. We Americans have come to accept perpetual warfare as the norm for our society. We now regard the “big government” and enormous national debt needed to make constant war on other peoples and care for our own fallen warriors as inescapable burdens on our body politic.
In military affairs, for Americans, more is always better. We have acquired a vested interest in big armies, big navies, big air forces, big armaments industries, and big talk about how we will destroy recalcitrant foreign societies. And despite the clear language of our Constitution, we have stood ineffectually by as Congress has yielded its power to authorize wars of choice to the Executive. The current, apparently limitless authority of the president to launch wars at will, including nuclear wars, negates the most distinctive and revolutionary element of our system of government: – the decision to entrust the power to start wars exclusively to Congress.
The reason the founders thought the Executive did not deserve such power is the focus of our vice chair, John Henry’s latest, wittiest, and most entertaining play, The Republic for which We Stand. The play, which debuted to rave reviews in Virginia, will be performed by members of the Committee – you know who you are – in the Congressional Auditorium at the United States Capitol Visitors Center on November 7. There, at 6:30 pm, the Committee for the Republic will confer Defender of Liberty awards on a heroic member or two of Congress for upholding congressional prerogatives with respect to the war power. The play will begin at 7 pm. Have a look at the details on the Committee’s website. I urge you to call the play to the attention of your representatives in Congress. If they show up, they will enjoy some pretty good slapstick while being reminded of the responsibilities the American people have entrusted to them.
That’s 6:30 on Tuesday, November 7, at the Congressional Auditorium of the Capitol Visitors Center.
In our republic, the President of the United States swears an oath to the Constitution before delivering an inaugural address. Based on some of what President Trump said during his campaign, I and others had hoped we might hear something like this from him last January 20:
“I pledge to the American people that, as your president and the commander-in-chief of your armed forces, I shall vigorously defend the United States of America against any attack, but I will initiate no war except upon a vote in Congress declaring it, defining its objectives, and funding it, as required by our Constitution, which reserves the right to authorize wars of choice to the Congress alone. I have inherited multiple wars from my predecessors that were not so authorized. I intend to submit these wars, one-by-one, to Congress for consideration and an up-or-down vote. I will take the failure of Congress to declare these wars as a mandate to end them on the best terms and as expeditiously as possible.”
That is not what we heard. If the president cannot bring himself to say such words, we must look to the Congress to muster the courage to assert its powers under the Constitution.
There is now apparent concern about the currently unconstrained power of the president to launch a nuclear attack on other nations at will. The answer to this and related anxieties is to take steps to implement the Constitution. We should clarify in legislation that any order by the president to our military directing a non-retaliatory attack on another nation that has not been explicitly approved by Congress is both illegal and an impeachable offense. We should return to respect for our founders’ carefully considered framework for decisions about war and peace. My hope is that members of Congress will yet form a bipartisan caucus devoted to promoting the constitutional exercise of the war power.
All this is very germane to the subject of this evening’s salon: Stephen Kinzer’s latest book.
No one has been more eloquent than Stephen, my friend and colleague at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, in making the case against a shoot-first, think-later approach to foreign affairs. Stephen, in your numerous op-eds and books, you have helped us understand how self-adulation and self-righteousness can lead us to compromise our ideals while wounding our national interests.
Ladies and gentlemen, Stephen Kinzer’s new book, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, wipes away a lot of national amnesia. It shows how, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Americans earnestly debated whether to take Manifest Destiny global, thereby contradicting the anti-imperialist principles on which our nation had been founded. Our decision to do so continues to influence our fate. The True Flag is at once a great read, a delightful reminder of past American eloquence on issues central to our national purposes and identity, and a reminder that populist nationalism can sometimes overwhelm common sense.
In the opening years of the twenty-first century we Americans have again made fateful decisions about our role in the world. We have chosen to go all out in defense of the crumbling status quo, that is: the global military primacy created by our past imperial belligerence. But this time we have made our decisions without notable public debate or discussion. The True Flag inspires us to do better than that, while offering a cautionary tale about the consequences of failing to do so.
Stephen, in addition to telling us how – against our better judgment – we became an imperial power, I hope you will give us your thoughts on what implications that has for our present and future health as a nation. Is there any reason to expect that we will be capable of breaking free of our past.
The podium is yours.