While Congress runs out the clock on President Bush’s Iraq War, some Vermont legislators hope to spark a state-by-state movement to quickly withdraw National Guard troops and stanch the flow of blood and treasure.
On Jan. 30, state House members, soon followed by state senators, introduced legislation that called on Vermont’s Republican Gov. Jim Douglas to take “all necessary steps” to bring home, as quickly as possible, all members of the Vermont National Guard serving in Iraq.
Rather than arguing whether launching the war was legal or even just, supporters of the bill tacitly concede that Congress’ 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force gave Bush the authority to invade Iraq based on two – and only two – criteria: “(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”
But today, Saddam Hussein and the specter of weapons of mass destruction are both dead; there is no national security threat; and the U.N. resolutions are no longer relevant, the bill’s supporters say.
“That very specific mission does not exist today,” says state Rep. Michael Fisher (D‑Lincoln), who introduced the House bill. And when the mission expired, so too did any legal or constitutional basis for the war or the involvement of the Vermont National Guard, the bill states.
“The president no longer has the authorization to command our Vermont National Guard units,” says Fisher.
“It’s bait and switch,” says constitutional legal scholar Peter Teachout, about the shifting mission rationales. “If they want troops there until the last suicide bomber has blown himself to kingdom come, they need to be specific.”
If the Democratic-controlled Vermont legislature passes the bill, the governor would have to sign it. The legislation would then have to survive a court challenge. A veto seems likely as Gov. Douglas is a supporter of Sen. John McCain (R‑Ariz.). As for a lawsuit, “there is no court in the country that would issue an order requiring withdrawal of troops mid-deployment,” says Teachout.
But there are legal precedents, albeit unsuccessful ones, for governors resisting orders to deploy their state’s Guard troops. In 1986, then-Gov. Madeleine Kunin joined a five-state effort to stop the Reagan administration from sending Vermont’s Army National Guard to Honduras. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Perpich v. Department of Defense that governors cannot block a call-up of the National Guard for service overseas. That precedent was limited because, unlike the current challenge, it did not rest on the illegality of the war, some Vermont Democrats argue.
Despite its slim prospects, Fisher insists the bill is more than symbolic: “It may cause a ripple that develops into a larger wave that helps clarify that states do have a role in controlling their National Guard troops, especially when a war effort is illegal.”
“If other states join in, it might light a fire under Congress,” says Teachout.
Already, legislators in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin are exploring ways to stoke the flame.
While both sides talk mainly about lives and national security, money circles the Vermont debate. State Rep. Patricia O’Donnell (R‑Vernon) points out that if Vermont withdrew the Guards, Washington might withdraw the $3 million it contributes to maintaining Vermont’s units.
Democrats counter that states are already bearing much of the burden of budgets cuts necessitated by the pricey occupation. At a January press conference, House Speaker Gaye Symington (D‑Jericho) said the war in Iraq has had a heavy impact on Vermont and has led to financial cuts in Medicaid and other areas.
The cost also comes in blood. Vermont has one of the highest per capita death rates in Iraq.
The state has tried various strategies to oppose the Iraq War. In February 2007, the legislature approved a non-binding resolution to bring home all the troops. And on March 4, citizens at a Brattleboro, Vt., town meeting passed a resolution calling for its local police to arrest and indict Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for war crimes. The town of Marlboro, Vt., passed a similar measure.
With Vermont still the only state Bush has never visited, it is unlikely either town will see a presidential perp walk.