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Long into Obama's term, foreign policy still unacceptable

BY SHAWN GUDE | JULY 14, 2011 7:20 AM

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More than two years into President Obama’s first term, the foreign-policy status quo remains unacceptable.

There’s public discontent over wars that continue nevertheless. Military bases still dot the globe. And the imperial presidency shows no signs of abating.

While Republicans have become increasingly skeptical about military involvement abroad, both parties are culpable in the continuation of this paradigm.

Could instituting war referendums (at least partially) rectify the situation? It’s a radical proposal, but considering the unsavory state of American foreign policy — and the need for increased citizen voice on war and peace issues — I think it merits an honest appraisal.

A war referendum proposal could take two main forms: Under a constitutional amendment, Congress couldn’t declare war until voters approved. (With exceptions for an attack or invasion of the U.S.) An alternate approach would be to pass a law instating pre-declaration, non-binding war referendums, in which voters would be asked to weigh in on potential military action before a Congressional vote. This wouldn’t necessarily tie legislative hands, but it would guarantee elected officials took the pulse of the public before declaring war.

The war referendum idea is an old one, reaching its American zenith in the 1930s. According to the 1977 book Ballots Before Bullets there were a whopping 33 war-referendum resolutions proposed in Congress between 1935 and 1941. The most prominent champion of the idea was Indiana Rep. Louis Ludlow, a Democrat who argued citizens should be accorded a greater role in shaping foreign policy; he also hoped the referendum would combat excessive interventionism and diminish executive power.

And his proposal was a popular one. A 1937 poll showed 73 percent of respondents favoring the Ludlow war-referendum resolution. Even with FDR’s resolute opposition, Ludlow’s measure still retained 58 percent support in a 1939 Gallup poll.

The Ludlow-Roosevelt conflict stemmed from differing views on the appropriate role of the United States military. Ludlow’s limited-defense liberalism clashed with Roosevelt’s more militaristic internationalism.

The war-referendum approach has received scant attention since, but there are still a few upsides to the idea.

It would enhance the citizenry’s role in foreign policy. Deciding to wage war is arguably the most important decision a country can make, democratic or otherwise. So it’s rather stunning that such a weighty call is characterized by such little citizen involvement. Indeed, once elected officials are in office, the only recourse for apoplectic citizens is reactive — protesting, writing to a senator, etc. And, increasingly, the president is the only elected official that matters.

It could rein in the executive. As commander in chief, the president plays an integral role in assessing troop levels and conferring with foreign leaders. But the president’s role has mushroomed beyond the appropriate constitutional constraints. Presidents don’t have the power to declare war, and they shouldn’t be allowed to circumvent Congress at will. Obama’s flouting of the War Powers Resolution — passed in the early 1970s and designed to cow an increasingly imperious executive — has again proven its impotence. War referendums could tip the balance of power back toward citizens and Congress.

It might precipitate fewer interventions. This is perhaps the most dubious of the three potential upshots. The American public typically likes intervening around the world initially (and even has some latent jingoistic tendencies). After slogging through for a few years, though, citizens often change their minds. I’m optimistic that citizens would do a little more ruminating — and hopefully become more peaceable — if they were able to cast a vote on intervention before the fact.

I’d be lying if I said I unreservedly back the war-referendum idea. For all its appeal, direct democracy has often performed abysmally (take a look at California, for example). But war referendums wouldn’t be Prop 8-style majority tyranny or anti-tax lunacy like Prop 13.

They would empower citizens and have paradigm-shifting potential. That’s why they at least deserve a look.


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