John Nichols: Mark Pocan and Reid Ribble stand together against endless war

Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan is a progressive champion who has emerged as a leading national figure on the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Wisconsin Congressman Reid Ribble is a steady conservative who is very much in the mainstream of the Republican Party.

By most measures, Pocan and Ribble occupy opposite sides of the partisan divide in Wisconsin and nationally.

Yet Pocan and Ribble were early and enthusiastic signers of a letter from House members urging President Obama to avoid any rush to action in Iraq and calling on the president to "respect the constitutional requirements for using force abroad."

At the heart of the constitutional requirements they mention is the demand that Congress be consulted not just for advice and consent but for a declaration of war before any decision to use military force in Iraq.

This requirement has been neglected by successive presidents since Franklin Roosevelt sought and received congressional approval to send U.S. troops to fight World War II.

Pocan and Ribble are right to say that it is time to show some respect for the Constitution, and for America's best traditions with regard to foreign entanglements.

The letter Pocan and Ribble signed — along with 80 other House members — was circulated by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who has been the steadiest anti-war voice in the U.S. House, and Congressman Scott Rigell, who served in the Marine Corps Reserve before representing Virginia as a very conservative Republican.

Like Lee and Rigell, Pocan and Ribble recognize that the rise of sectarian violence in Iraq is a serious concern. But they warn that it cannot become an excuse for the casual redeployment of U.S. troops to the country where so many Americans and so many Iraqis have already perished.

"We do not believe intervention could be either quick or easy. And, we doubt it would be effective in meeting either humanitarian or strategic goals, and that it could very well be counterproductive," reads the letter to President Obama. "This is a moment for urgent consultations and engagement with all parties in the region who could bring about a cease-fire and launch a dialogue that could lead to a reconciliation of the conflict."

In addition to their practical arguments for restraint, the House members make the constitutional case.

"As you consider options for U.S. intervention, we write to urge respect for the constitutional requirements for using force abroad," the letter reads. "The Constitution vests in Congress the power and responsibility to authorize offensive military action abroad. The use of military force in Iraq is something the Congress should fully debate and authorize. Members of Congress must consider all the facts and alternatives before we can determine whether military action would contribute to ending this most recent violence, create a climate for political stability, and protect civilians from greater harm."

Deep caution with regard to military intervention has a deep history in the United States of Thomas Jefferson, who warned that America should "have nothing to do with conquest," and James Madison, who declared, "Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other."

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams marked the 45th anniversary of American independence, in 1821, by explaining the balance that a republic must strike if it wishes to avoid paying the unaffordable wages of empire.

Americans have a responsibility to speak up for global democracy clearly and without apology, Adams told Congress. But, the great diplomat added, they have an equal responsibility to avoid entangling themselves in the turmoil of other lands.

"Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. (But) she well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom," explained Adams.

"The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit …"

The genius of the American experiment, said Adams, was found in the revolutionary spirit of 1776, which rejected the corruptions of empire — the worst of which stem from the impulse to meddle in the affairs of other countries.

"Her glory is not dominion, but liberty," the future president said of the United States. "Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her declaration; this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice."

Adams concluded his address by urging Americans to renew their acquaintance with the revolutionaries against colonial meddling and empire who founded the American experiment, to celebrate their example and to: "Go thou and do likewise!"

Wisconsinites should be proud that Pocan and Ribble are doing likewise — recognizing, as the founders did, the dangers that arise when the United States involves herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.

Read this article in its original form here.