Shinseki publicly clashed with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the planning of the war in Iraq over how many troops the United States would need to keep in Iraq for the postwar occupation of that country. As Army Chief of Staff, Shinseki testified to the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services on February 25, 2003 that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would probably be required for postwar Iraq. This was an estimate far higher than the figure being proposed by Secretary Rumsfeld in his invasion plan, and it was rejected in strong language by both Rumsfeld and his Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who was another chief planner of the invasion and occupation. From then on, Shinseki’s influence on the Joint Chiefs of Staff reportedly waned. Critics of the Bush Administration alleged that Shinseki was forced into early retirement as Army Chief of Staff because of his comments on troop levels; however, his retirement was announced nearly a year before those comments.
When the insurgency took hold in postwar Iraq, Shinseki’s comments and their public rejection by the civilian leadership were often cited by those who felt the Bush administration deployed too few troops to Iraq. On November 15, 2006, in testimony before Congress, CENTCOM Commander General John Abizaid said that Shinseki had been correct that more troops were needed.
In the spring of 2001, Bill Barr, the former attorney general under George H.W. Bush who has now been tapped to resume that role under Donald Trump, sat for an oral history interview sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The transcript is fascinating reading on many issues, such as Barr’s explanation of his reluctant support for now-Justice Sonia Sotomayor for her original district court appointment, his argument for “massive retaliation against Libyan military intelligence targets” after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 was attributed to the Libyans and his belief that the “issue of the role of the Department of Justice versus the national security apparatus in terrorist situations … hasn’t been thought through.” But here I’d like to focus on his account of the clash between Congress and the president over war powers.
Barr’s narrative picks up at the time when President H.W. Bush already had deployed half a million troops to Saudi Arabia (Operation Desert Shield), but prior to the invasion to evict Iraq from occupied Kuwait (Operation Desert Storm). Barr had been head of the Office of Legal Counsel previously, and now was the deputy attorney general. With Attorney General Dick Thornburgh unavailable at a particular moment in time and given Barr’s extensive experience with national security legal issues, Barr explained, he naturally became a key participant in discussions regarding whether the president should seek from Congress a formal authorization (or at least some form of endorsement) to use force against Iraq:
We knew the issue would eventually come, and the president would need some advice on the parameters of his power. First, I believed that the president did not require any authorization from Congress, and I believed that the president had constitutional authority to launch an attack against the Iraqis. … He didn’t put 500,000 troops over there for them to sit there, and there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to go on the offensive unless the Iraqis withdrew unilaterally. So I figured at some point I’d be asked my opinion on this. Then, before I knew it, I got this call that there was going to be a meeting over in the Cabinet Room to discuss the legal issues surrounding the operations in the Gulf.
…[W]hen I was leaving my office, Senator [William S.] Cohen was on the floor, a Republican purportedly, giving this speech saying that if any lawyer ever advised the president that he had the authority—because this was really being debated at the time, and there were op-ed pieces and so forth—if any lawyer told the president that he had authority to unilaterally attack the Iraqis, then that lawyer would be impeached. I was putting on my jacket listening to this going over to the meeting.
…The president said, Bill … I’ve been reading these articles. This op-ed piece the other day said I don’t have the authority to launch an attack on the Iraqis. What’s your view, what’s the Justice Department’s view on whether I have the authority? …
I said, Mr. President, there’s no doubt that you have the authority to launch an attack. I explained why I thought he did under the Constitution as commander-in-chief, and I gave him some different theories.
At this point in the narrative, things are relatively simple. Barr had made clear his view that the president’s inherent authority under Article II included the authority to initiate a large-scale, combined-arms operation involving massive ground forces, without need of congressional authorization in the form of an authorization for the use of military force or otherwise. But he also went on to express a back-up theory—one that he labeled a “bootstrap argument”—in the event that this first theory did not persuade. Here is Barr’s account of the bootstrap argument for presidential war powers:
…I gave him a secondary theory—which I was sort of proud of at the time, it was a bootstrap argument. I said, Now another reason here, Mr. President, is—even for the critics who would say that that wasn’t true—there’s no doubt that you have the authority to put 500,000 troops in the field. Congress authorized—through the approval of the U.N. whatever they are, resolutions, and through their authorization and all that stuff, Congress has definitely approved you putting 500,000 troops over there face-to-face with the Iraqi Army.
We have intelligence that they have weapons of mass destruction—chemical weapons, biological weapons—and your job as commander-in-chief is to make sure those troops are not preemptively attacked. If you feel as commander-in-chief that in order to protect your army in the field you have to launch first, you absolutely can do that. Which I thought was an ingenious argument, [redacted].
Let’s unpack that a bit. The argument proceeds in two steps. First, does the president have authority to deploy armed forces in non-combat capacities? Barr argued that Bush certainly had authority to go that far, and Barr reinforced that conclusion as to this particular instance by pointing out that there was little doubt Congress approved Operation Desert Shield. But this left open the question of whether it somehow followed that Bush also could order that deployed force, without congressional authorization, to initiate hostilities with Iraq. That brings us to the secondstep: By citing the risk that forces deployed in Saudi Arabia might be attacked preemptively by Iraq (by chemical or biological weapons no less), Barr concluded that Bush had available the option of initiating hostilities in the form of anticipatory or preemptive self-defense. Thus the bootstrap metaphor: The authority to attack the Iraqi military could be derived from the need to preemptively defend the deployed forces.
Notably, Barr paused at this point in his advice to the president in order to encourage him to obtain congressional support if possible, recognizing that this would put the president in the strongest position possible. But he also recognized that congressional debate on this subject would introduce the shadow of Justice Robert Jackson’s “tripartite framework” from Youngstown (Steel Seizure):
I said, However, Mr. President, even though you have the power to do this unilaterally, without any consultation with Congress or what have you, you certainly would be in a better position, the strongest possible position, if Congress did pass a resolution. It would not be the law. It wouldn’t be a statute authorizing you to do it, but a resolution supporting what you did.
The reason I say that is because on the Hill at that point they were actually talking about passing a resolution that said the opposite, that he could not use force unless he got their approval. There were some in the administration who were saying, Just let them do it, screw them, ignore them, and let them pass whatever they want.
I said, I think it’s better to get up there and engage, to get up there and see if we can head off that kind of resolution and, in fact, get a resolution in support of it.
President Bush, wisely, anticipated the potential Youngstown problem that might follow:
He said, Well, suppose they pass a resolution saying I cannot do it. What impact does that have?
Barr’s response was nuanced: “I said, It’s irrelevant. It’s not a statute. It’s just an expression of opinion. They can’t change the Constitution by expressing their opinion on the matter. I would say you could still do it.…”
This gets to a very important question, one that senators should explore during the confirmation hearings: Does Barr believe not only that the president has inherent authority to initiate large-scale hostilities (whether directly as in his primary argument above, or via a boostrapped-defense claim as in his fall-back argument), but also that the president can do so even when Congress purports to direct otherwise?
Critically, the answer Barr gave to Bush does not compel the conclusion that Barr believes the commander-in-chief can override a statute. He was careful to frame his answer to President Bush in terms of a hypothetical in which Congress is considering a mere concurrent resolution (that is, something passed by both houses but not presented to the president for signature and not of statutory nature). Barr seems to have been saying that a negative concurring resolution can indeed be overridden—that is, that the president in that type of lowest-ebb scenario would yet prevail on the war powers question. But it does not follow that Barr would take the same view if the congressional opposition took the form of an actual statute (including a proper joint resolution), particularly one leveraging the spending power. Indeed, it is quite possible Barr (like John Yoo) would accept the power of Congress to constrain the commander-in-chief at least via the spending power, so long as the congressional action managed to rise to the statutory level.
In the end, of course, these questions were moot as to what became Operation Desert Storm:
And [Dick] Cheney said, You’re giving him political advice, not legal advice. I said, No, I’m giving him both political and legal advice. They’re really sort of together when you get to this level. Then there was a debate as to whether he should get up on the Hill and push. I was saying he should, and Boyden Gray was saying he should. There were others who were opposed. Eventually he made the decision after that meeting that he would. The White House went full-bore on that vote and got the vote turned around, and then ultimately won the vote. That was an interesting experience. I enjoyed that.
I’ll close by noting what should be obvious from those who have followed these arguments over the past decade. The most common war powers dispute in recent years has been not the question of unilateral authority to engage in large-scale ground operations, but rather unilateral authority to engage in airstrike-focused operations that rely on allies for the ground component—giving rise to the notion, embodied by Obama’s 2011 Libya campaign, that the “war powers” debate is not actually even implicated in the first place in such cases. I think it’s safe to assume that Bill Barr would accept that reading of the president’s authority as well.
Sixteen years ago this week, the George W. Bush administration sent U.S. forces crashing into Iraq without a real plan for what to do after defeating Saddam Hussein. It is easy to forget that moment’s fervent convictions about the Iraqi dictator’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda—and the calamity into which Iraq soon descended. It all seems to belong to another era. The debate today is more about how we got out of Iraq than how we got in.
The idea that the U.S. would do anything like Iraq again feels ridiculous. We appear to have learned our lesson, and America’s political climate hardly seems primed for new military adventures. No imminent threat demands a response. President Donald Trump arrived in office determined to reduce U.S. commitments abroad, not to multiply them. He is aiming for a deal with North Korea, not war; pulling troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, not pushing more in.
But this picture bears a striking resemblance to the situation in the U.S. in the late 1990s. It was a time of domestic focus. Foreign policy had receded into the background, and no one was clamoring to invade and occupy far-off lands. In the charged atmosphere after 9/11, however, the national mood shifted dramatically. Looking back on the Iraq invasion, a key lesson is how easy it can be to tumble into a war that once seemed preposterous.
It falls to the national security adviser to defend the incomprehensible.
It’s tempting to pity John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser.
Tempting because it falls to the irascible but experienced Mr. Bolton to try to explain, or even undo, the president’s more impulsive and erratic foreign policy decisions. Pity because of the mortifying contortions required.
This past week Mr. Bolton journeyed to Ankara to discuss the American role in the Syrian civil war with Turkish government officials, only to run smack into another autocrat with a short fuse, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader canceled a planned meeting with Mr. Bolton and then publicly excoriated him.
Such humiliations pale, however, when one considers the Gordian knot that Mr. Bolton went to Ankara to untangle. That is, how to stop Mr. Erdogan from slaughtering Syrian Kurdish forces, who have been essential in fighting the Islamic State, after the Americans leave northern Syria. Mr. Erdogan considers the Syrian Kurds to be terrorists aligned with those in Turkey who have been in a separatist battle with the state for about 40 years.
Mr. Bolton’s diplomatic mission was unusually tough because both Turkey and the Kurds are partners of the United States. The Syrian Kurds are formidable fighters, and the progress against ISIS that Mr. Trump touts would have been impossible without them.
The Turks, meanwhile, are NATO allies, bound to Washington in a formal defense pact. Incirlik Air Base, a major staging point for American military operations throughout the Middle East, is in southern Turkey.
Mr. Bolton, a conservative hard-liner with considerable self-regard, can be a hard person to feel sympathy toward. He has made his own serious errors, not least his aggressive support for the 2003 Iraq War, which destabilized the Middle East, and, more recently, his creation of a White House decision-making system that limits robust discussion.
He certainly knew before taking the position as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser that he would be serving a chaos-driven and temperamental master. Still, Mr. Bolton faces the unenviable challenge of regularly having to defend the indefensible or make corrections after the fact. In October, he flew to Moscow to explain to President Vladimir Putin Mr. Trump’s sudden and ill-advised decision to begin pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, negotiated by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mr. Bolton’s latest Middle East visit was intended to reassure anxious regional leaders that the American withdrawal from Syria would be orderly. But the mission ran aground after Mr. Bolton demanded that Turkey protect Washington’s Kurdish allies and pledged that American forces would remain in Syria until the Islamic State was defeated, which could take months or years. That seemed to contradict Mr. Trump’s pronouncement in December that the Islamic State had been defeated and all 2,000 American troops would be out of Syria within 30 days.
Cue Mr. Erdogan, who dismissed Mr. Bolton’s remarks as a “grave mistake” and said, “It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel.” A pro-government newspaper went so far as to accuse Mr. Bolton of being part of a “soft coup against Trump.”