Emperor Bartlet: The Bartlet Administration’s Record on War and Congress

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Sometimes you just have an idea and you need to write it. This is the result of one of those times. I know it doesn’t really fit my normal material, but it needed a home and what’s a blog for if not to host pieces of yours? Enjoy.

P.S. There are spoilers for all seven seasons here, but I don’t know why you’d be reading something this nerdy if you haven’t already seen every episode of the West Wing multiple times by now.

On Saturday, President Barack Obama announced to the surprise of many that he would be seeking Congress’ approval before striking out against the Syrian government in response to last week’s alleged chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 civilians. The determination clearly draws attention to many unfavorable comparisons to the first president of the 21st century — a man whose lack of strategy and disdain for exit plans led the U.S. into several costly, and likely illegal, wars: Josiah Bartlet.

While many have heralded “The West Wing” as having the liberal ideal of a President as its lead, one prone to speeches and high-minded rhetoric that were a welcome relief for progressives in the time of the Bush administration, his record on foreign-policy is spotty at best. At worst, it can be called disastrous and a profound overreach against the laws of the country and international community far more severe than those Obama has been accused of pondering in his Syria response.

Start by looking at the Season 4 crisis in Equatorial Kundu. Mentioned only once before two seasons prior, Kundu is apparently a small, AIDS-ravaged stereotype of an African country, whose president was shown to be a noble figure killed at the hands of the military. When the country reappears, the citizens are hacking away at each other along ethnic lines, until Barlet decides to send in the Marines to stop the killing. Kundu was clearly meant to be a parallel to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and Bartlet’s actions a fantasy-version of what would have happened if President Bill Clinton had actually intervened to stop it.

What “The West Wing” never answers, however, is just what happened after the Marines were sent in. We can assume the killing stopped but how long were American soldiers on the ground there for? What was Bartlet’s indicator that it was safe to have them pull out? New elections? A negotiated peace deal?

And under what authority did he even send troops in in the first place? Under the War Powers Resolution, Congress attempted to rein in the executive overreach seen in the Nixon years to only having the authority to act within a window of 90 days without Congressional approval. The showrunners of “The West Wing” have stated that it’s clearly an alternate universe, but one where the last President to line up with history was Richard Nixon, the very man who had the War Powers Resolution passed over his veto. So by that logic, the War Powers Resolution should be in effect
during Bartlet’s two terms.

It’s also unclear that Bartlet ever consulted Congress as required under the law, with the body never mentioned except in the context of preparing the Inaugural Address that will introduce the Bartlet Doctrine. Obama’s national security team has spent hours briefing Congress in both classified and unclassified sessions, something it’s not apparent Bartlet sent National Security Advisor Nancy McNally or Secretary of Defense Hutchinson to do. Instead, the Marines are never mentioned again.

Then there’s Bartlet’s foray into the Middle East. In Season Six, Bartlet — somehow — manages to negotiate a peace deal between Israel and Palestine, on the condition that the U.S. play peacekeeper to the agreement. Without a word to Congress, Bartlet commit thousands of American soldiers to an open-ended engagement in the Levant. Surely that qualifies as “introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances” as the War Power Resolution clearly states. Instead, Congress is only brought into the story to discuss the funding of the mission, not the White House sending a draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force to the Hill as Obama has done.

And then there’s the granddaddy of all of Bartlet’s foreign policy faux paus: Kazakhstan. Late in his second term,with the election only weeks away, Bartlet sends in more than 100,000 military personnel to stand between two superpowers’ armies as they advance towards each other in Central Asia. The goal, to get Russia and China to the negotiating table rather than launching World War III between them, is ill-defined in the most generous of terms. It’s depicted accurately as a huge cost to the U.S. taxpayer as well, with no mention of how — or if — Congress was willing to fund it.

What’s more, it’s even specifically referred to as an open-ended engagement, far outside the scope of the War Powers Resolution. When Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Matt Santos asks for Bartlet’s exit strategy in a tense meeting in the Oval Office, the president flatly admits “I don’t have one.”

In none of these cases are the War Powers Resolution’s standards fulfilled. It may be the case that it’s a case of art only showing us what’s true. Since its passage in 1973, the WPR has done nothing to stop any conflict the president has wanted to start. Not Grenada in 1983. Not Kosovo in 1999. And not Libya in 2011. Receiving from Congress the explicit authority to launch a conflict has been the exception more than the norm in the past several decades.

Bartlet clearly wasn’t always this way, though it’s apparent that he had it in him from his early years in office. The very first time we see Bartlet having to consider military action, a strike ironically enough directed at the Syrian government, it’s described as a limited engagement as a punishment for a specific action against the U.S. The “proportionate response” that gives the episode its name is a one-off attack on several Syrian regime pieces of infrastructure. Though he eventually acquiesces to the more limited plan of action, Bartlet for a time considers a much more expansive piece of retribution.

As Obama weighs his options, the decision to go to Congress is a risky one, but one that is definitely legally sound. It also has the political benefit of showing that he is willing to consider Congress’ opinion before moving to use force. For all the trouble the Bartlet Administration got into with Congress, you’d think that the Hill would have hit him harder on this issue. Through his choice to go to the legislative branch for approval, Obama is showing a belief in the system that Bartlet never did.

But it may have just reflected a different time. While Season 3′s “Isaac and Ishmael” wasn’t canon, the writers under Aaron Sorkin had to feel the realities of September 11, 2001 bearing down on them. All of the actions the fictitious Bartlet Adminstration took after that point were written in a post-9/11 world, one where Congress challenging the president on national security was unthinkable. Bartlet also never had the stigma of Iraq hanging over him as Obama does.

Still, if Congress disapproves of the Syrian strikes, which it very well may do, and none of its members are attacked as being “weak on national security,” we may well have left that era — and the Bartlet Administration with it — in the past.

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