One aspect of the Impeachment Week symbolic bombing of Iraq — symbolic in that it seems to have had little impact on the correlation of forces in the area, though it had a more than symbolic impact on certain Iraqis, and lightened taxpayers’ wallets by a rather concrete $500 billion — has hardly been noticed in print. This was one of the first, if not the very first, military attack by the United States without so much as a semblance of justification as a defensive action.

I’m not so naive as to imagine that the constitutional provision giving Congress and only Congress the power to declare war applies any longer in our Brave New World Order. Sure, the provision was placed there explicitly to prevent a future president from spending the taxpayers’ money (five times the entire federal budget in 1964) and risking the lives of military personnel in useless and cavalier military actions like the one Mr. Clinton ordered. But the provision has been shredded over the years, by the undeclared war in Korea, the undeclared war in Vietnam, and countless undeclared wars and military actions since then. The Constitution hasn’t been amended, but this provision has been effectively repealed.

Even when Congress tried to take back some of the powers presidents had ceded to the presidency by passing the War Powers Act after Watergate, it implicitly granted the president more power to undertake military hostility than the framers of the constitution had ever imagined would be possible. Under the law the president has to report to Congress within a certain number of days of launching a military strike, and theoretically to get its permission to continue. Even those provisions are routinely ignored.

Until very recently, however, American policy makers were always careful to cast military activities as necessary defensive measures rather than as acts of aggression. The coalition that fought the Gulf War wasn’t assembled, and perhaps couldn’t have been assembled, until Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. Most of the military actions in Bosnia were at least justified as responses to aggression by Serb forces. Even last August’s Monicagate missiles were spun as a response to the terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.

Not all the arguments that military actions were undertaken reluctantly in response to naked aggression were intellectually sustainable. Some — see the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in Vietnam — were clearly a case of orchestrating events to create a fig leaf of defensive response. But at least some effort was made to create the appearance of a defensive response to aggression, because policy makers, however much they might be devoted to real politick, were convinced that Americans were not the kind of people who were comfortable with the idea of their nation undertaking military action simply to punish somebody who was seen as potentially dangerous, or on a whim.

For whatever reason, that final restraint — of needing to appear judicious and defensive rather than aggressive for fear of stirring up negative public opinion — has gradually disappeared during the Clinton years. Last February, when Monica I was raging, President Clinton was fully prepared to launch missiles — not because Saddam had done anything to his neighbors — yet — or taken any aggressive action, but because (to put it in a deliberately provocative way) he had defended his nation’s tattered sense of sovereignty against incursion by minions of the New World Order.

President Clinton was ready to launch an attack on the same thin pretext in November, then did it in December. The attack marks an important turning point in the evolution of the United States into an explicitly imperialistic power — one that doesn’t need the pretext of real or pretended aggression to “give the wogs a whiff o’ the grape,” but feels fully justified in attacking other countries because their leaders have failed to acknowledge our suzerainty — or just because.

Others have noted that by launching the attack without even the courtesy of pro forma consultation with our “allies,” the United States has set in motion forces that will come back to bite us — especially if, as appears likely, Russia decides it’s time to rebuild its military and seize Great Power status in opposition to the United States. I think the sadder aspect is that we have become a power that feels free to attack anybody anywhere in the world without even pretending the action is really defensive in nature. The American soul died a little that week.

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