On War and National Interests

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Meanwhile, somewhere in a Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) classroom…

Instructor: OK, so far we have covered national interests and DIME[1], the four major components of national power - now I’d like to look at some case studies: some times that the United States has used the "M" component of national power, seeing as we are at a military war college. So, any ideas?

Student A:  WWII?

Instructor: Ah, the last "good" war! OK, any others?

Student B: Vietnam?

Student C: Desert Storm?

Instructor: Good, good - and that one has the advantage of having both a deterrence phase - Desert Shield - and a kinetic phase, Desert Storm - good!

Student Z: Sir?

Instructor: “Tony”

Student Z:  Sir?

Instructor: Don't call me "sir," call me "Tony."

Student Z: Oh, OK - Tony, Sir,...

Instructor: <sigh>

Other Students: <laughter>

Student Z: ...what about something from current events, like the recent bombing of the Saudi oil refinery?  I mean, the President has talked about us being "locked and loaded," we could be going to war at any time...

Instructor: Well, he also seems to be backing off that earlier tweet, but OK, I've been unpromotable for some time now, let’s go there!  What’s your question?

Student Z: Well, I guess as Commander in Chief the President can take whatever military action he wants to protect U.S. interests, right?

Instructor: Class, what do you think?  Can the President commit the nation to war on his own authority?

Students: Yes!  No way, the Constitution...  It depends...?  Well, some have... The War Powers Act!

Instructor: Hang on, one at a time!  D, we haven’t heard from you recently - what are your thoughts?

Student D: Well, the Constitution says Congress declares wars, but it also makes the President the Commander in Chief...

Instructor: Is that a contradiction?

Student A: No, I think the idea was that the Congress would decide when we would go to war, and once that decision was made, the President would lead the military forces in prosecuting the war.

Instructor: It would have been nice if the Founding Fathers had spelled that out, wouldn't it?!? OK, let's say that was the intent - but even in the 18th century, and certainly today, threats to our national security can develop very quickly, too fast to convene Congress to debate a war resolution - shouldn't the President be able to respond to "obvious" threats to our national security?

Students: Yes!  No!  Maybe!

Instructor: OK, OK!  I'm glad you all agree!  Well, if you look at our history, Presidents have insisted, from the earliest days of the Republic, and often acted on, the premise that it is within their authority as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces to be able to respond as necessary to protect our national interests.

Student E: But what are our national interests in a Saudi oil refinery being bombed?

Student B: Isn’t Saudi Arabia a treaty ally?

Instructor: Well, I know we haven’t gotten to the “Walk Around the World” session yet and discussed the Middle East, but no, they are not a treaty ally.

Student A: I know no Americans were directly attacked, but doesn’t this represent a threat to the world’s oil supply?

Student D: Maybe, but the President tweeted that we don’t need Saudi oil...

Student C: We don’t, but the world economy does, and the price of oil spiked after the attack, which could trigger a national and maybe even a worldwide recession.

Student Z: Please, we can’t be going to war because the price of gas goes up a few cents per gallon!

Instructor: OK, let's keep it civil!  We've already established that Saudi Arabia is not a treaty ally, and while the price of oil has been affected by the strike, I'm not hearing you say that is a “to die for”[2] national interest...

Student F: “To die for”?  Surely we could just do some Tomahawk strikes and not risk any U.S. lives...

Student B: I don't know - I am thinking Iran if that is who you are talking about striking, wouldn't like that much, and they might do something back.  And any time you use military force, you risk military lives...

Instructor: OK, let's circle back - someone mentioned the War Powers Act earlier - what was that all about?

Student A:  That was me, Sir - er, Tony.  After the Vietnam War, Congress was concerned that the President had gotten us involved in a war without the Constitutional step of Congress declaring war.  Recognizing the need for Presidents to be able to respond to immediate threats, but not wanting to cede their Constitutional responsibility for declaring wars, Congress required in the War Powers Act that the President return to Congress to get authorization for any military action he initiated.

Instructor: OK, not a bad summary!  This is Security Strategies, not Policy, so I don’t want to go too far down that path, but how’s that worked out?

Student D: Not too well – no presidential administration has ever accepted the limitations of the War Power Act.  So what do you think, Sir?  Do you think the President will order some military action against Iran?  What authority do you think he will cite?  And should the Combatant Commander execute the order to strike if he believes it to be an illegal order?  And if we do take some military action, what do you think Congress will do?

Instructor: It’s “Tony!”  And I said I was unpromotable, I didn’t say I couldn’t be court-martialed - save it for your Policy instructor!

CAPT Anthony Cowden is a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy.  The views represented here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


 [1] Diplomatic, Information, Military and Economic

[2] To pay for, to kill for, and to die for – an often useful way to prioritize national interests

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