When hawks roost on Capitol Hill, even Canada isn’t safe.

By Ted Galen Carpenter
October 8, 2012
The American Conservative.com

Most worries about Washington’s proclivity for dubious military adventures focus on the imperial presidency. There is certainly good reason to fear an unfettered executive in foreign affairs. But there are instances in which Congress has been the more warlike branch, and we are currently witnessing two examples.

One involves the growing pressure for the United States to take action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. The other is the congressional campaign for a more confrontational policy, including the possible use of military force, against Iran’s nuclear program. Although the Obama administration has taken a fairly hard line on both issues, it apparently is not uncompromising enough for Congress. Led by the Three Amigos in the Senate—John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joseph Lieberman—and their hawkish counterparts in the House, a crescendo of calls for new U.S. crusades in the Middle East is rising.

But this is not the first time the legislative branch has taken the lead in getting the country into armed conflicts. Consider two fateful historical instances: the period before the War of 1812 and the run-up to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The term “warhawk” was in fact coined to describe the militant attitudes of such congressional figures as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, who helped push the United States into the War of 1812. The stridency of that faction put constant pressure on James Madison’s administration to confront Great Britain.

Warhawks typically stressed alleged British violations of U.S. territorial integrity and maritime rights on the high seas. They had some grounds for their complaints. The British Navy was not shy about resorting to “impressment”—stopping U.S. merchant vessels, removing supposed British citizens, and essentially conscripting them on the spot. That would have been irritating enough if those seized were indisputably British citizens. But citizenship was often in question, and it appeared that many of the targets were in fact American citizens.

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