Biden Should Pledge to Cut Back on Presidential War Powers—To Start With | Opinion

Recent polls place Joe Biden a tentative few paces ahead of President Trump in the 2020 presidential race. If Biden is elected this coming November, he will enter the Oval Office on a wave of anti-Trump fervor and with a campaign platform in hand that, courting the progressive vote, has made a significant leftward shift since the democratic primaries began at the start of 2019. A report issued last month by a "unity taskforce" of Biden and Bernie Sanders staffers registered how far forward the Democratic presidential nominee has travelled on key issues like climate change, health care, and criminal justice. But the report was silent on another topic: foreign policy.

To prove that he has moved beyond a military-leaning approach to global affairs, Biden will need to embrace a foreign policy that concretely reorients America's relationship to the world away from domination toward cooperation. And as the inheritor of Trump's erratic foreign policy legacy, Biden must not accept a mangled status quo; he will need to make a sharp, consistent break left.

Already there are signs that a Biden presidency could adopt a more diplomatic international stance than his early campaign gave reason to hope. Biden has, for example, announced that he would end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, a disaster that the UN has deemed the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. This would have been unthinkable under Obama, who provided vigorous logistical and military aid to the Saudi coalition as it besieged Yemen, with deadly results.

But Biden's promise to end "forever wars," like the one in Yemen, faces warranted skepticism, given his now-notorious championing of the Iraq War and his backing of Obama's extensive drone program.

As the election nears, there are a couple major steps Biden can promise to take if elected to promote a more peaceful foreign policy and help persuade skeptics.

The first would be to cut defense spending. At $740.5 billion, Trump's recently approved defense budget is the largest Pentagon budget since World War II, towering over spending on other issues like education, housing, and energy and environment. The budget marks the apex of a military that has become senselessly bloated. For a taste: about $29 billion will be spent expanding our already robust arsenal of nuclear weapons. Another $32.5 billion will be devoted to "Enduring Requirements" - namely, costs that persist after combat troops have returned home, spent on the upkeep of bases, intelligence, and training in countries abroad.

Those worried about what slashing defense spending might mean for national security might consider that the Pentagon actually wastes vast sums of money every year. (It returned about $80 billion to the Treasury between 2013 and 2018.) And a few years ago, the Pentagon failed its first ever official audit: billions of dollars were discovered to be unaccounted for.

If elected, Biden should back sensible efforts to curb soaring military spending. One such effort was on offer in July, when the 2021 defense budget was passed by the Senate, though that effort needlessly failed. The Pocan-Lee-Jayapal amendment would have cut the budget by ten percent. That's $74 billion, more than the combined budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Park Service, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Where could those saved billions go instead? To battling the socio-economic fallout of Covid-19, for one. The pandemic has sent shockwaves through the economy, with a dizzying array of consequences for the most vulnerable in the US. Take the millions of struggling renters across the country who currently stand on the precipice of what one housing activist has called "an eviction crisis of biblical proportions." While Democrats proposed a bill last month that would allocate legal assistance to renters in need, many of those renters will likely be forced to vacate their homes anyway without a fresh infusion of unemployment insurance. Redirected defense funding could also be channelled to subsidizing energy payments for the roughly 800,000 low-income households that have recently had to disconnect their electricity and are unable to air condition their homes amid the sweltering summer heat. In the longer term, a ten percent cut on defense could be redirected toward spending on any number of neglected areas, including diplomacy, which the just-finalized 2020 Democratic Party Platform notes is outstripped by military spending 13-1.

The second step Biden could take would be to rein in presidential access to military power.

He could start by repealing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). This isn't as revolutionary as it sounds. The president has always occupied the role of commander in chief, but the powers unleashed by this resolution are a very recent invention. A Bush-era piece of legislation that empowered the president to use force against the perpetrators of 9/11, the AUMF has had a long and sordid life in successive administrations. In the Bush years, the resolution served as the pretext for bypassing Congress to send troops into Iraq. During the Obama administration, it was used to dramatically expand the drone program, launching tens of thousands of airstrikes in seven countries and making Obama "the first two-term president in American history to have been at war every single day of his presidency." More recently, the Trump administration invoked the AUMF to justify its assasination of the general Qassem Soleimani, an act of wanton recklessness that brought the U.S. perilously close to war with Iran.

Casting off these outdated war powers would be a straightforward way for Biden to demonstrate his avowed commitment to the principle that "diplomacy should be the first instrument of American power." As long as a US president can sign nuclear deals with one hand and authorize covert bombings with the other, diplomacy remains a dubious proposition.

Consider Iran again. Biden has emphasized his willingness to renegotiate the now-scuttled Iran deal and has rightly blamed Trump for the assasination of Soleimani. Indeed, de-escalating tensions with Iran deserves to be a first priority in the next Commander in Chief's administration. Yet the presidential powers that were instrumental in killing Soleimani - those granted by the AUMF - were the same ones that Obama employed liberally, albeit more quietly, with Biden as his vice-president.

By contrast, the Constitution voices a profound suspicion of such outsized uses of presidential authority. As Gene Kelly at the Cato Institute has quoted, Founding Father James Madison believed it was "an axiom that the executive is the department of power most distinguished by its propensity to war, [therefore] it is the practice of all states, in proportion as they are free, to disarm this propensity of its influence." Limiting the president's capacity to wage war and distributing that capacity through Congress was one of the chief means by which the Framers hoped to encode long-term stability into the DNA of America's foundational document. Repealing the AUMF, then, would not entail a departure from the wisdom of precedent but a return to it—and would protect Americans and the world from rash decisions by any Biden successor. It would be foolish to pretend Trump is the last unhinged president of the United States.

Taken together, these two changes—shrinking the Pentagon budget and reining in presidential military powers—would represent a new, clear-eyed direction for American foreign policy, one that has gathered increasing bipartisan momentum in recent years. And these changes would extend and make good on Joe Biden's own professed vision of a US role in the world that elevates diplomacy over military might.

Sam Dembling is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Biden Should Pledge to Cut Back on Presidential War Powers—To Start With | Opinion | Opinion