Alison Broinowski. Who decides when we go to war?

May 4, 2016

 Setbacks for democratic reform of war powers.

Having taken one step forward, Australia’s major allies have now taken two steps back from reform of their war powers.

In the UK, the Defence Minister has set aside years of bipartisan promises of legislation that would require British governments to consult the Parliament before committing forces to war, and has rejected what he now calls this ‘artificial’ constraint.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown sought legislation to bring to an end the exercise of the war powers by a prime minister under executive privilege. He hoped to transfer the decision for war to the Parliament, but abandoned the attempt in 2007. A bipartisan committee secured support of both houses in 2011 to enshrine in legislation the convention of executive consultation with MPs before committing armed force. Having asserted, in Opposition in 2006, that public trust depended upon MPs having the final say in troop deployments, David Cameron in government allowed the initiative to drift, but his plan to send RAF planes to Syria was defeated in the Commons in 2013. Cameron then secured a majority in favour of a similar deployment this year. Cameron has now reversed himself and rejected the prospect of legislation to change the war powers, even though the convention that governments should consult Parliament apparently remains in place.

In the US, following several attempts to revise the 1973 War Powers Act, President Obama requested Congress in February 2015 ( to authorise him to dispatch forces against Islamic State, and to repeal the 2002 authorisation for President G.W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He offered to limit the new deployment to three years, and to restrict ground combat to Special Forces. The measure was opposed by some Democrats and rejected. Obama subsequently sent US planes and troops to Iraq and Syria regardless, relying upon the authority granted by Congress in 2001 to his predecessor to fight Al Qaeda, which remains law. Then, in January 2016, in Obama’s final year as president, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican majority leader, introduced a Bill for the ‘Authorisation for Use of Military Force’, for which Obama had signed an executive order in September 2015. If it passes, the Act will take effect in August 2016. What the Bill appears to seek is 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.

These US and UK developments set a dangerous example for Australia, where politicians have in recent years begun to see the risks of allowing ‘captain’s picks’ to decide the dispatch of Australian forces to war. When democratic processes are bypassed, the restraints of international and domestic legality are overridden. When accountability for war and its outcomes is not shared with the people’s representatives, the executive can do as it pleases, can withhold from the public the details of what is being done in their name, and can repeat its past errors with impunity.

‘Australian governments’, historian Henry Reynolds has recently written, ‘find it easy to go to war’ (Unnecessary Wars, 2016: 238). Reynolds calls Iraq an episode of military adventurism for which Australian leaders suffered no opprobrium nor inquiry; made no public expression of regret; and showed no sense of culpability or responsibility. ‘Calls for a formal investigation into the circumstances of Australia’s entry into the Iraq war,’ he adds, ‘have met with official silence’. We and many others live with the consequences of the Iraq disaster, and the prospect that our governments may repeat it.

Dr Alison Broinowski is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform and Vice-President of Honest History.

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