America's Most Important Anti-War Politician Is a Senate Republican

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Rand Paul's stand in the Senate shows why non-interventionists should focus more on that body and less on the presidency.

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Reuters

Earlier this week, as the Senate considered a bill to impose even tougher sanctions on Iran than the ones already in place, Senator Rand Paul blocked its bipartisan passage pending the addition of an amendment. "My amendment is one sentence long. It states that nothing in this act is to be construed as a declaration of war or as an authorization of the use of force in Iran or Syria," he said. "I urge that we not begin a new war without a full debate, without a vote, without careful consideration of the ramifications of a third or even a fourth war in this past decade."

Paul's objection was something of a non sequitur. As Majority Leader Harry Reid subsequently stated, "There's nothing in the resolution that talks about war," and although sanctions are themselves arguably an act of war, we've long since crossed that line. I am nevertheless glad that the gentleman from Kentucky seized this opportunity to remind his colleagues and American citizens generally that the road to war ought to run through Congress, something that didn't happen the last time our president sent American combat troops to act on behalf of our foreign allies. (The bill remains blocked).

Said Paul in his floor speech:

Our Founding Fathers were quite concerned about giving the power [to] declare war to the Executive. They were quite concerned that the Executive could become like a king. Many in this body cannot get boots on ground fast enough in a variety of places, from Syria to Libya to Iran. We don't just send boots to war. We send our young Americans to war. Our young men and women, our soldiers, deserve thoughtful debate.

Before sending our young men and women into combat, we should have a mature and thoughtful debate over the ramifications of and over the authorization of war and over the motives of the war. James Madison wrote that the Constitution supposes what history demonstrates. That the Executive is the branch most interested in war and most prone to it. The Constitution, therefore, with studied care vested that power in the Legislature.
Those words and Paul's actions are mutually reinforcing arguments for a proposition that anti-war Obama supporters should have accepted by now: The problem with relying on a president to advance the non-interventionist agenda is that he or she is unlikely to cede power, regardless of his or her campaign rhetoric or previous critiques of executive excesses; whereas a single senator, while much less powerful than the president, can do a lot for the anti-war cause. A bloc of five senators could do even more. In the past, anti-war voters and civil libertarians nevertheless put much of their focus -- their attention, rhetoric, and resources -- on the presidency.

I certainly have.

But watching Paul as a lonely voice against a war with Iran ... and the extension of the Patriot Act ... and the National Defense Authorization Act ... and the War in Libya ... well, the man could use more allies. The last time civil libertarians and anti-war voters advanced their agendas, it was because Congress, empowered by Vietnam and the scandals of Richard Nixon, pushed back against the institutional power that the executive branch had accrued. There is good reason to consider a candidate's positions on war and civil liberties during presidential elections, but it isn't nearly sufficient, or even the most important factor in the long term trajectory of those issues. As Paul and former Senator Russ Feingold demonstrate, it is possible for both Republicans and Democrats to elect individuals who will champion civil liberties and oppose wars. If the post-9/11 national security state is to be reined in or rolled back that must happen more often. Obama has destroyed the illusion that anyone will do the job from the White House.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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