The winter Balkan lull has let Congress off the hook for rolling over and playing dead in response to President Clinton’s dispatch of troops to Bosnia. It is cruel irony that the fewer casualties American troops sustain, the more likely we are to continue permitting further such devaluations of democracy. That will accentuate the eternal verity Congress has reaffirmed; Those who can, do; those who can’t do, teach; those who can’t do or teach, preach.

Preaching is what the United States does best. We sermonize, evangelize, proselytize, and moralize, incessantly enjoining the rest of the world to do as we say, not as we do. But it is this very hypocrisy—the failure to practice at home what we preach abroad—that threatens to become America’s strategic undoing. The ultimate culprits for this looming strategic castration—the preachiest of us all—are the members of this country’s self-ordained ruling class, whose obsession with the tactics of low politics has so sullied the conduct of statesmanship and statecraft.

Strategy has always been about the effective exercise of power. In this postmodern era, strategy is no less about the effective management of perceptions—the creation and projection of images, the manipulation of symbols, the construction (and deconstruction) of reality. The case with which we are able to wield power depends, in the main, on the credibility we have established—on the correspondence between our actions and our words, on the quality of our performance when we do act, on how consistently we adhere to the principles and values we espouse.

By advocating peace but spending lavish sums to maintain a massive military establishment armed with the world’s most lethal weaponry, by endorsing arms control but engaging in the promiscuous development and sale of the most sophisticated armaments, by unabashedly proclaiming ourselves the world’s only superpower but refusing to accept responsibility for providing visionary global leadership, by extolling principle but repeatedly bowing to expediency, we undermine our credibility and thereby produce our own progressive strategic debilitation.

Our most flagrant hypocrisy, though, is reflected in our facile preachments on democracy; holding ourselves up as paragons of democratic virtue and pressing others to emulate us in the interest of democratic “enlargement,” even as our domestic politics betray a penchant for autocratic methods.

The importance of such tendencies lies in the fact that in all matters strategic, the effective exercise of power depends on something more than just the wherewithal at our disposal—more, that is, than on superior wealth or force, diplomatic acumen, technological advantage, or cultural appeal. Especially where the stakes or threats are ambiguous, it depends on the collective will of the populace to act—a function of social cohesion and the broad-based consensus that only public trust and confidence in government can produce. Such trust and confidence are so vital to this country precisely because we do not practice true democracy. Rhetoric to the contrary, we never have.

America’s Founding Fathers, in seeking to counter the tyranny they considered the inevitable outgrowth of concentrated power, predicated our government on the rule of law, the supremacy of the Constitution, the checks and balances of divided power and, most importantly, popular sovereignty. “The people who own the country,” said John Jay, “ought to govern it.” Bowing, however, to the dictates of order and efficiency, the Founders ensured that the “turbulent and changing” masses were only nominally in charge. The people, Hamilton opined, “seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the [rich and well-born] a distinct, permanent share in government [to] check the unsteadiness of the [masses].” And so our lesser forebears—the little people from whom most of us are descended—relinquished their fate and ours to a purportedly representative governing “elite,” whose exercise of circumscribed and countervailing powers was to be held accountable by the consent of the governed, and whose right to rule over us we would be socialized over time to accept without question.

Consent stands, therefore, as the cardinal measure of democracy. In the words of John Adams, “As the happiness of the people is the sole end of government, so the consent of the people is the only foundation of it.” In no area is this more valid than in the employment of military force. To the Founders, the commitment of troops to prospective hostilities was war; and war was to be accompanied, if not preceded, by a constitutionally prescribed congressional declaration representing the will of the people, whose blood and treasure were on the line.

Postmodern politicians realize, of course, what the Founders did not: war is war only if you call it that. If you call it a police action, a counterinsurgency, or a peace operation—and if, moreover, you replace citizen-soldiers with volunteer regulars and create standing “emergency” legislation to routinize the call-up of reservists—you can sacrifice the sons and daughters of the patriotic, trusting little people at will without their consent. And Congress and the Supreme Court will look the other way. Small wonder that non-wars have claimed more than 350,000 United States casualties since 1945.

We willfully sublimated our powers of consent during the Cold War to the cries of urgency and imminent danger. We were thereby complicit in institutionalizing and legitimizing the technocratic oligarchy that now reigns in this country, masquerading as the ideal democracy we pretend to have.

Absent the Cold War conditions that seemed then to rationalize such civic surrender, the only defensible justification now for consent to give way to more-or-less unchecked presidential unilateralism in matters of war and peace might be a President who holds a bona fide electoral mandate from the people—and has a demonstrated record of competence in international affairs. President Clinton, having ascended to office with only 43 percent of the popular vote—24 percent of the overall voting-age population and 18 percent of the total populace—commands nothing approaching such a mandate. A Congress, therefore, that would forsake its obligation to the people and to the Constitution by giving a free hand to such a President—especially one whose administration’s strategic maladroitness and military illiteracy have been so palpable—is complicit in perpetuating the imperialization of the presidency and thereby opening the way for the sort of executive tyranny our forebears sought to escape.

Faced with a continuation of this state of affairs—where our own government neither hears nor seeks our consent in the gravest of matters—we will be left to ask how literally we should interpret the injunction in our Declaration of Independence: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [of securing the natural rights of the people through government based on the consent of the governed], it is the Right [and duty] of the People to alter or to abolish it.” If we descend to that point, we will then realize just how pyrrhic—and, by contrast, meaningless —our Cold War victory was.