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Toward an Ecumenical Antimilitarism

Congress needs to take back its war powers from the White House.

Words: Benjamin V. Allison
Pictures: Tim Mossholder

Many arguments in favor of reducing the American defense budget rely on zero-sum financial thinking, positing that defense monies would be better spent alleviating poverty, providing universal healthcare, fighting climate change, or funding the State Department. Others critique US power by highlighting the uniquely destructive nature of the American way of war.

While these arguments have merit, many Americans don’t buy them. After all, defense spending is only around 5% of the US gross domestic product and about one-sixth of the federal budget. Sure, we outspend the next ten countries combined, but that’s the cost of global hegemony! Like it or not, this is how a good chunk of the population thinks, with a solid majority of Americans consistently believing that the United States should have the most powerful military in the world.

Defense skeptics, therefore, need an argument around which Americans of all political persuasions can rally. Some think that defense spending is merely inefficient, while others critique the vast basing system of the American empire. For some, the use of torture or drone warfare is unconscionable; many see the growth of the national security state as an existential threat to civil liberties. What argument can draw together these disparate strands of thought on defense and foreign policy?

Simply put, the United States should reduce its defense spending as a means of circumscribing the power of the executive branch in general and the office of the president in particular. This approach incentivizes civil libertarians, liberals, conservatives, and leftists to back cuts to the defense budget. Such a unifying approach could also contribute to restoring a sense of bipartisan agreement in a period of intense national division. 

In Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers explicitly gave Congress the power “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” The constitution designates the president as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces but not as the arbiter of American involvement in war itself.

Simply put, the United States should reduce its defense spending as a means of circumscribing the power of the executive branch in general and the office of the president in particular.

The American presidency has outgrown the Founders’ original intentions, becoming increasingly imperial in nature and exceeding its constitutionally-mandated powers, particularly in the area of warmaking. But the imperial presidency, as Andrew Rudalevige argues, both necessitates and is caused by an “invisible Congress” — that is, a Congress too weak or timid to challenge the presidency’s unyielding grip on war powers. 

As a rule, since the mid-twentieth century, Congress has proven reticent to directly hold the presidency accountable for overreaches in the use of US military force. Indeed, since World War II, the United States has been involved in at least five major wars (and several minor conflicts) without formally declaring war. Congress has only occasionally acted to curtail the power of the chief executive, particularly in the 1970s, when it passed the War Powers Act and reined in US intelligence agencies. Despite the slight increase in congressional control over warmaking powers, it has frequently followed the president’s lead by providing open-ended authorizations for the use of force, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Recent attempts to curb the White House’s warmaking abilities have fallen flat. Since then-President Donald Trump vetoed the Yemen War Powers Act in 2019, its proponents in Congress have proven reluctant to revive it, and members of the Biden administration who supported it when Trump was in power have reversed their positions now that the glove is on the other hand. While the Senate recently voted to repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq, it has not yet passed in the House, where a measure to withdraw US troops from Syria was roundly defeated in March 2023. 

It has long been noted, moreover, that while Congress has the “power of the purse” when it comes to the defense budget, it does not make use of that power. A glance at US defense spending over time does not reveal significant defense decreases in response to “presidential wars.” And those decreases that have occurred have been led by the president (i.e., the White House requested less defense spending) rather than by Congress. Instead, one sees a series of increases. As Michael Brenes argues in “For Might and Right,” this can largely be attributed to the popularization in American politics of the notion that military spending is a better vehicle than social welfare programs for combating unemployment and economic upheaval. This clearly demonstrates Congress’ tendency to follow the president’s lead in increasing defense spending. Indeed, in 2023, Congress allocated $37 billion more for defense spending than Biden requested. 

Reducing the defense budget would give Congress tremendous leverage over the presidency regarding warmaking. It would force the White House to be more circumspect in initiating conflicts; in fact, it might convince future presidents to ask Congress for formal declarations of war rather than Congress simply doing the president’s bidding in granting open-ended authorizations for the use of force and agreeing to fund already-initiated conflicts. Importantly, it could force the president to lay out clear objectives and timelines for the conflict, along with contingency and exit plans — things that have been sorely lacking in the last 50 years of American strategy. 

The American defense budget does far more harm when the (wo)men and materiel it buys are put into kinetic action than when they lie dormant in warehouses, silos, and barracks. For example, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, the Global War on Terror took between 906,000 and 937,000 lives and cost American taxpayers $8 trillion

Decreasing the defense budget is a means of decreasing the possibility (and therefore incidence) of US military action and clawing back the warmaking powers from the presidency. Furthermore, a more efficient defense budget could help eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse and decrease the chances of the United States sleepwalking into a conventional war with a peer rival like China. It could also embolden Congress to restore constraints on executive branch powers by shrinking the size of the national security state that expanded so dramatically during and after the War on Terror, which many Americans of all stripes now recognize as infringing on their rights.

Constraining the executive branch’s ability to take us to war should appeal to members of Congress and the American public, as it would help return some of the warmaking power to Congress and make the process of going to war far more democratic. After all, what decision can be more momentously impactful than that of war?

Benjamin V. Allison

Benjamin V. Allison is a PhD student in History at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies US foreign and national security policy since 1945, especially toward the Middle East and Russia.

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