Wednesday, May 26, 2010

War and the Constitution

A friend of mine, in the midst of a Facebook discussion on politics, asked me to post something on an argument I made that the Constitution and war go together like, say, love and marriage. That is, I was making the argument made by some Anti-Federalists that the Constitution tilts in the direction of war and would therefore create a war-like government or a government that "likes to go to war." Sounds implausible I know, especially given the tendency to idealize the Constitution and its framers, but it is persuasive none-the-less and it goes like this.

Some Anti-Federalists noticed that the argument made in the Federalist Papers for extensive national powers with regard to national security or national defense was not really an argument on behalf of defense or security. If it were, I will add, then Hamilton's argument in the Federalist for a virtually unlimited government in this regard would prevail, logically and necessarily. But these AFs noticed and asserted that this argument for defense or security disguised a change in what is deemed the appropriate end of government, a change from personal liberty to political, economic, and social greatness. As Patrick Henry said in the Virginia ratifying convention, when America was in its youth it spoke the language of individual liberty as the end of government, whereas now the language had become that of "greatness" or "empire." The Constitution looked to establish a government that could and would pursue greatness, subordinating individual liberty to this end.

Hence, the argument between the Federalists and the AF is not simply over the extent of power of the national government or over the division of power between the states and the national government. No, it is over what is or should be the appropriate end or goal of government and civil society, individual liberties or greatness. Under the Constitution, we were to be or become a great nation, with a great military, a great capital city, a great economy, and a great empire. But this meant and means I would add [as did the AFs], that the Constitution was created to facilitate the new government engaging in war, not in defensive war but in offensive or "empire building" wars. For some AFs, war was a plague that gave rise to all kinds of evils in any society, but especially in a society that aspired to be a republic. War was not, as Teddy Roosevelt and others would argue later, ennobling. It was obscene and was so even when waged defensively. So, the Constitution, by embracing and aspiring to greatness, to creating a great nation, necessarily and logically becomes war-like. After all, other nations do not just roll over in the face of foreign nations.

A reflection of this is the presidency, which Patrick Henry said had "an awful squinting, it squints in the direction of monarchy." Of course, at that time, monarchies were understood to be more war-like than republics. I would add that the provision making the president the commander in chief of the armed forces reflects this tendency toward war as well [despite Washington's attempt in his Farewell Address to short circuit this tendency]. Hamilton wanted an "energetic executive," that is, an executive that wants to act and act vigorously, with "secrecy and dispatch" to use Alex's words. Act first, deliberate later. Well, this means, necessarily, if in doubt as to whether to make war, then make it - worry about the collateral damage later! And, of course, as the AFs pointed out as well as Machiavelli, there are always "dangers" - you know, like WMDs that no one has seen - that can be used to justify going to war. And, just as logical, if you endorse an energetic executive, you want to have executives who are prepared to use their power, including military power, without worrying too much about such things as "collateral damage." You want executives who are not queasy about shedding blood, executives like Teddy Roosevelt, not those like Jimmy Carter. In fact, "good men," men with consciences, might just be liabilities in the presidency, as seems to be the take on Carter.

So in not so brief of a nutshell, this is argument for linking the Constitution with war and saying that the former tilts toward war, makes us a war-like nation. Our history might be taken as proof that this argument is not as weird as it sounds at first. After all, we do make war frequently and just like Hamilton in the Federalist, we like to think that they are defensive adventures. In fact, though, they appear to be offensive or "empire building," the necessary acts of a nation that strives or aspires to greatness.

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