The UK and the US moved closer this week to enabling their governments to bypass legal and democratic processes in committing forces to war, virtually anywhere, at any time and continuously. Australian politicians and the mainstream media seem to assume that this has nothing to do with Australia and we are not interested.
On 17 April, just days after the UK had joined the US and France in bombing what they claimed were ‘chemical weapons’ sites in Syria, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn secured a three-hour emergency debate in the House of Commons. He proposed a War Powers Act that would prevent the government having UK forces attack foreign countries without prior parliamentary consent. In a heated exchange about the attack on Syria, Corbyn said the legislation he proposed would ‘transform a broken convention into a legal convention.’
He was referring to the fact that the constitution-less UK for centuries accepted the sovereign right of the monarch to declare war, and in modern times considers that power to have devolved to the executive government, as do Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. In both the Lords and the Commons, a convention has developed in the 21st century that a government should consult the Parliament before committing troops to war, and Tony Blair successfully applied it in 2003 to secure approval of the Iraq invasion. A decade later, David Cameron sought to do the same in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons, but enough MPs remembered how they were deceived about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to defeat him. So in 2015 Cameron deployed the RAF to Syria by simply bypassing the Parliament. Efforts in both houses to write convention into law have not succeeded, and the UK government has set aside years of bipartisan promises and rejected the requirement to consult Parliament as an ‘artificial’ constraint.
Reviving the issue and applying it to a new deployment, Corbyn said the Prime Minister ‘is accountable to this Parliament, not to the whims of the US president.’ Theresa May predictably played her legal, moral, and humanitarian cards and Corbyn’s motion was defeated (https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/947485/Syria-strike-UK-Tory-Jeremy-Corbyn-war-power-act-demand-Theresa-May-Douma-latest7). The Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford contradicted the Prime Minister, welcoming Corbyn’s support of the SNP’s war powers policy and asserting that ‘Once again, we are being dragged into military action with little regard for the humanitarian situation on the ground [and] no long-term strategic plan’ (https://www.rt.com/uk/424352-corbyn-debate-war-act/).
My British interlocutor in Sydney dismisses the debate, saying ‘Corbyn is a bit of a nutter.’ My Australian informant in London considers that Corbyn missed his opportunity by concentrating on immediate events in Syria, and repeating that ‘it was about the accountability of Parliament to the people and the accountability of the Government to the Parliament,’ which while true, probably changed few opinions. Corbyn acknowledged that the UK would have to make an exception about Parliamentary processes in an emergency, as most democracies do, but he didn’t discuss the question that Australian ministers say most concerns them, how to protect secret intelligence. Theresa May didn’t go there either, and agreed with Corbyn that decisions for war should be made by the Parliament, but not in exceptional circumstances, which she too had trouble defining, presumably because of the raid on Syria.
In the US, control of the war powers of the president is also weakening. After several attempts to revise the Vietnam-era 1973 War Powers Act, particularly by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, President Obama requested authority from Congress in February 2015 to dispatch forces against Islamic State, and to repeal the redundant 2001 authorisation for President G.W. Bush to fight al-Qaeda. Obama offered to limit the new deployment to three years, and to restrict ground combat to Special Forces. The measure was opposed, including by some Democrats, and rejected. Absurdly, Obama then sent US planes and troops to Iraq and Syria regardless, under the 2001 authorisation. In January 2016 Republican majority leader Senator Mitch McConnell introduced a Bill for the ‘Authorisation for Use of Military Force’, for which Obama had signed an executive order in September 2015. The Bill sought virtually unlimited power for the President to deploy US ground forces anywhere in the world and for any length of time, including in the United States, without having to provide legal or strategic justifications to Congress. In its latest form this is what we now learn President Trump is currently proposing (Rand Paul https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5&v=K4V3jQCi8-o). The interests of the military/industrial/surveillance complex don’t change, whoever is president.
The current extensions of US and UK war powers set a dangerous example for Australia, where governments as historian Henry Reynolds warns, ‘find it easy to go to war’ (Unnecessary Wars, 2016: 238). Some now see the attractions of being the world’s tenth biggest arms exporter, so the more wars the better. We all live with the consequences of the Iraq disaster, and the prospect that our government may repeat it. But Australians for now have an opportunity to decide what’s in our interests and do it, independently of London and Washington, in compliance with the much-cited international rules-based order.
Dr Alison Broinowski FAIIA is Vice-President of Honest History and of Australians for War Powers Reform