In January, Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Ted Lieu of California, both Democrats, introduced legislation that would prohibit the president of the United States from conducting a first-use nuclear strike, unless such an attack had been authorized by a declaration of war by Congress.
Known as the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Just short of a year later, the bill is generating substantial congressional support. At last check, 13 senators, all Democrats or independents, and 73 representatives, including one Republican, had signed on as co-sponsors.
Neither body has taken any further action on the legislation. However, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under the leadership of Republican Sen. Bob Corker, held a mid-November hearing examining the president's sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. This was the first congressional hearing on the subject in more than 40 years.
Requiring a formal declaration of war prior to any potential use of nuclear weapons would be sound policy, no matter who is occupying the White House. The proposed legislation would reclaim some of the authority Congress has ceded to the executive branch over the past 70 years, and help restore the balance of powers the founders envisioned in our Constitution. In the extreme circumstances under which such congressional action might be required, the debate and vote itself could also serve as a powerful incentive to bring an adversary to the negotiating table before nuclear weapons were actually used.
One of Congress's most solemn and crucial duties is whether or not to declare war against a foreign power. The Constitution places that responsibility squarely in the hands of Congress — and no one else. But Congress has been hesitant to exercise this authority. The years of war our nation has undertaken in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East have all been carried out without a declaration of war. Instead, our military continues to fight under congressional consent from a long-outdated Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Congress has not revisited that action since, nor actually declared war on any nation, despite spending more than a trillion dollars to support those military actions. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine has been pushing for an updated authorization for several years.
Prior to the current conflicts, we fought in Korea, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, Panama and elsewhere. None of these military actions was preceded by a formal declaration of war from Congress. In fact, the last declared war our troops fought and died in was World War II.
This is a critical problem. The singular power of Congress to declare war is an essential check on the war-fighting capacity of the executive branch of government and the military it commands. The framers of the Constitution clearly did not want the president or the military to wage war on their own, without consent of the people, through the Congress that represents them.
Nuclear weapons can be launched in a matter of minutes. Once the missiles are fired, they cannot be recalled. The president, should he or she choose, can launch a nuclear strike against programmed targets with essentially no fail-safe mechanism. During the Cold War, the theory of mutually assured destruction was intended to strengthen nuclear deterrence — the Soviets knew that if they chose to mount a nuclear attack, our missiles and bombers would be on their way to a devastating retaliation before our own country was destroyed.
And third, lawmakers must consider the current occupant of the White House. President Donald J. Trump is a man who, rather than pursue negotiations and allow economic sanctions time to pressure North Korea, has called its leader names and threatened his nuclear-armed nation with "fire and fury like the world has never seen." This is exactly the kind of impetuous, ill-conceived behavior that calls for a constitutional check from another branch of our government.
An offensive nuclear first strike — killing millions of innocent civilians — would certainly be understood by the world as a horrific war crime. And any leader who ordered such an attack would immediately become the world's most despised war criminal. It's important for Americans to remind ourselves that we remain the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons against another country. The rest of the world has not forgotten.
Arms control experts have long advocated an explicit national policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. Such a policy would reduce the level of tension and danger with North Korea. In addition, it would immediately reduce tensions between our country and other nations — both those that also possess a nuclear arsenal and those that rely exclusively on conventional weapons.
Currently, no one from Virginia's congressional delegation is among the co-sponsors of the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act. Virginia senators and representatives from both parties should sign on, and enable the bill swiftly to move through the legislative process. Formally committing the United States to a no-first-use policy will be one small step towards a safer, saner planet. S
Paul Fleisher serves on the staff of the Richmond Peace Education Center.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.