President Barack Obamas claim that he doesnt need congressional authorization for his current war in Iraq and Syria is troubling. The countrys founders would pass out upon hearing his claim that the post-9/11 congressional approval of force in 2001 against the perpetrators of those attacks and their abettors and the congressional resolution approving George W. Bushs invasion of Saddam Husseins Iraq in 2003 give him the current authority for a very different war against very different people. However, Obama is not the first president to believe that he has the rather imperial authority for war by executive fiat.
Up until 1950, for major conflicts, presidents followed the nations founders intent in the U.S. Constitution to obtain a declaration of war from Congress. For the Korean War, however, Harry Truman, really the first imperial president, decided that this vital constitutional requirement was optional. Unfortunately, as I note in my new bookRecarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Libertyonce a bad precedent is set, meaning that the chief executive gets away with an unconstitutional act, future presidents will cite it in carrying out their own questionable actions.
Over American history, that process has thus resulted in an expansion of presidential power much past what the founders had envisioned when they wrote their constitutional blueprint. Thinking of the powerful European monarchs of the day, who took their countries to war on a whim and let the costs in blood and treasure fall to their unfortunate citizens, the founders wanted an executive with severely restricted powers. Congress was to be the dominant branch of government, and the executives role merely was to narrowly execute and enforce laws passed by that body. Even the presidents commander-in-chief role, much abused by modern chief executives, was to be restricted narrowly to commanding the U.S. military in battle. In fact, contrary to the conventional belief in Washington and among the American public, the Constitution gives most of the powers in defense and foreign affairs to the Congress, not to the president. The erroneous notion that the chief executive is the sole organ of American foreign policy, derives from the non-binding part of a Supreme Court decision in the 1930s (that is, fairly recently).
In the Constitution, the founders signaled their intent for Congress to approve even minor uses of force by the United States. The document says that Congress will issue letters of marque and reprisal. At the time, letters of marque were issued to private ship captains to raid an enemy nations commerce.
So it is curious from his past behavior that Obama, a constitutional lawyer, believes that if he avoids putting combat troops on the grounddefining this narrowly to exclude Special Forces hunting terrorists and American military trainers of local forcesand limits his attacks to air strikes, its not a real war that would require congressional approval. His criterion seems to be that if no Americans would be killed, its not a war that the Congress needs to bother with authorizing. Yet aircraft can get shot down or malfunction and pilots can be captured or killed. Also, the people being bombed would probably call it a war, and so the peoples representatives in Congress might want to comment on whether the United States should be in a state of hostilities with them.
The peoples representatives dont always make the right decisionas they didnt in President James Madisons pointless War of 1812, James Polks war of aggression against the weaker Mexico to steal its land, William McKinleys colonial Spanish-American War, or Woodrow Wilsons ruining of the twentieth century by American entry into World War Ibut they should at least get to vote, as the nations founders intended and the Constitution states.
|Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.|
A candid reassessment of the presidential scorecard over the past 100 years, identifying the hypocrisy of those who promised to limit government while giving due credit when presidents lived up to their rhetoric.