Reigning in the Presidents of War

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The drumbeat of war is raging yet again with many calling for American intervention in the Syrian civil war conflict and for American action to eliminate the Iranian nuclear weapons program. However, successful short-term policy outcomes often make for bad constitutional precedents.  On March 19, 2011, President Barak Obama ordered American missile and air strikes against targets in the sovereign nation of Libya in support of rebel forces opposing the government. By late October, Muammar Gaddafi’s body was being dragged through the streets and abused by the triumphant rebels who had been assisted by American bombs.

None of us mourn the toppling of a brutal dictator, but we should all mourn for the overthrow of the plain meaning of the U.S. Constitution by any president who takes it to be within his power to bomb any other nation, to kill foreign citizens with weeks and months of cruise missile strikes, and expend the nation’s treasures without any consultation with Congress.

The U. S. Constitution, for good and sufficient reason, entrusts the U.S. Congress alone with the power to take the nation to war.  Our founders knew their history well and feared making it possible for any one man to take the nation unilaterally into a state of war.  They made the American president the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. armed forces, but gave to the direct representatives of the people the responsibility for permitting the president to order American citizens into hostilities and to unleash our dogs of war upon citizens and property abroad.

George Washington, our first Commander-in-Chief said it well, when he summarized the founder’s understanding by stating, “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive action can be undertaken until after they have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.”

President Obama’s blatant disregard for the Constitution and contempt of the institution of Congress is egregious, but it is not without precedent.  Indeed, it has been a general assertion of the modern presidency that the executive has the ultimate power over war and peace.  Congress itself strengthened the president’s hand when it passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973.  That law gave to American presidents the ability to go to war for 60-90 days without any congressional authorization.  But even this massive potential power has not been enough for our executive branch as each president since Nixon has held the act to be an unconstitutional restriction on their powers and has refused to follow even its most basic requirements.  This is no small matter.  It takes little imagination to consider the potential consequences of two months of modern warfare.

Whether for good cause and in the nation’s interest or not, war inevitably leads to the death of human beings abroad (U.S. citizens and foreign nationals), the bleeding of the nation’s treasures at home, and the growth of the centralized power that feeds the war effort.  Our founders understood this well and sought to make war rare, difficult, and the result of congressional deliberations.  Our modern presidents and their servants have sought to make war a matter of presidential will and whim.

To the degree that we allow our presidents to unilaterally take the nation to war, we violate the Framer’s delicate design for a balanced republic and we imperil our citizen’s lives, liberty and property by putting them at the behest of a single decision maker who, at least in a second term, is not even subject to the threat of rejection at the polls.  It is time for our Congress to reassert its place in the constitutional order and for citizens to resist the eternal dream of executives to control the ultimate questions of war and peace, life and death.