UN chief to open signing for 1st nuclear ban treaty (copy)

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

President Trump shocked the world when he used his first address to the United Nations to talk about obliterating a country of 25 million people. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” the commander in chief told the assembled diplomats Sept. 19. Referring to the leader of North Korea, Trump announced: “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

At every turn in a speech like none in the history of the American presidency, Trump outlined a belligerent agenda that raised the prospect of clashes, interventions and wars with North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and a host of other countries.

Trump kept up the saber rattling after he left the podium, tweeting about the prospect that North Korean leaders “won’t be around much longer!” Things got so heated that a CNN headline asked: “Could North Korean, U.S. threats of destruction cause an accidental war?”

That’s an unsettling prospect. And Trump is making things worse. When dealing with so erratic a figure as North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un, the U.S. must send sounder signals than Donald Trump’s tweet storms.

That’s where the Congress comes in.

Members of Congress have the power to check and balance the president when it comes to declaring war and deciding on the financing of military interventions and “police actions.” Unfortunately, they have deferred to the White House by allowing a 16-year-old Authorization for Use of Military Force — approved in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon — to serve as a vehicle for presidents to do as they please. That’s absurd. Presidents should be required to seek fresh congressional authorizations that are appropriate to evolving circumstances.

In mid-September, Republican Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, forced Senate consideration of an amendment that would have repealed the ancient AUMF and revoked Donald Trump’s blank check to make threats and, potentially, to make war.

“What we have today is basically unlimited war — war anywhere, anytime, any place on the globe,” Paul declared as the Senate considered his amendment. “I don’t think anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty believes these authorizations allow current wars we fight in seven countries.”

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Unfortunately, only 36 senators had the foresight and courage to vote to place reasonable restrictions on Trump’s war-making powers. One of them was Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin. She joined 31 Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats (Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King) and three Republicans (Paul, Utah’s Mike Lee and Nevada’s Dean Heller) in supporting a move to open debate on Paul’s proposal to repeal the open-ended 2001 AUMF.

Baldwin’s vote got little attention, nationally or in Wisconsin. That unfortunate, because it was one of the most important votes she will cast as a senator. Too many Democrats, and most Republicans (including Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson) got this vital vote wrong. Tammy Baldwin got it right.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times