June 12, 2014

Power to wage war is focus of D.C. briefing

Jens Ohlin, a Cornell law professor specializing in the use of military force, and U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, MPA '95, MA '96, Ph.D. '98, an alumnus serving in the U.S. Congress after a long military career, jointly argued June 9 in Washington, D.C., for fundamental changes in how America goes to war.

They said that the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Congress gave President George W. Bush in 2001 to pursue the 9/11 hijackers, is being improperly used today to justify continued American military action around the globe.

The two men spoke in the Rayburn House Office Building as part of “Inside Cornell,” a series of media briefings that features Cornell faculty, staff and alumni talking on public policy issues in the nation’s capital.

Gibson introduced the War Powers Reform Act in 2011 to the House of Representatives; it would prohibit a president from introducing troops to combat or imminent threat of combat – or to obligate or expend funds for that purpose – without express Congressional approval.

“While the president has the constitutional authority to take action to defend our cherished way of life, the Congress was empowered to decide when we would go to war,” noted Gibson. “This process has become out of balance over recent decades.”

“This is not a Democrat versus Republican issue. It’s an Article One versus Article Two issue,” Ohlin noted, referring to the legislative and executive powers enumerated respectively in the first two articles of the U.S. Constitution.

The War Powers Reform Act has 44 co-sponsors but is opposed by both the Republican and Democratic leadership in the House. It is considered highly unlikely to be brought up for a vote in this session. Gibson referred to the measure as “a matter of conscience,” and pointed out that his supporters include an unlikely mix of liberals and conservative libertarians, similar to the political alignment around such issues as NSA surveillance and the reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

Ohlin specializes in international law at Cornell. His latest work concentrates on the legal implications of remotely piloted drone strikes, and he is a co-editor of a collected volume titled “Targeted Killings: Law and Morality in an Asymmetrical World” (Oxford University Press, 2012). Ohlin is also co-author of “Defending Humanity: When Force Is Justified and Why” (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Ohlin is critical of what he considers the typical justifications for untrammeled presidential authority: that the executive branch is unitary, confidential and nimble where Congress is divided, chaotic and plays to the public.

“Because the executive branch has a fetish for privacy and being opaque, it is more open to covert advice from special interests. The president does not have a monopoly on security expertise or rationality,” said Ohlin.

Gibson represents New York’s 19th District, which covers portions of 11 counties in the Hudson Valley region.

Gibson was first elected to Congress in 2010 after retiring from the U.S. Army, where he served 24 years, rose to the rank of colonel and completed four tours of duty in Iraq.  He also taught political science at West Point and served as a commander of U.S. forces during humanitarian operations in Haiti.

Art Silverman is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.