Post #67 – Presidents and War

President Obama has submitted a request to Congress for authorization—actually, reauthorization—of wars the United States has been fighting for many years.  Though he considered the initial authorization in 2001 to President George W. Bush sufficient to prosecute the fight against ISIS, he evidently decided that an update might not be a bad idea in view of some disgruntlement, mainly among liberal Democrats, about being at war without enabling legislation.  But it’s all posturing; though the rhetoric for and against will be intense, in the end Obama will get what he wants, just like every president before him.

War politics in the United States is all about presidential prerogative.  My study of the issue has led me to several generalizations about presidents and war powers.  Put together, they amount to concluding that the US will remain at war in the Middle East in one form or another for years to come; that Congress will go along with what the president wants; and that the next president will inherit these wars, just as Obama inherited Bush’s wars.  Plus ça change . . .

My generalizations:

  • Congress may sometimes be asked to authorize a war, but presidents make war. The academic notion of shared powers is something of a myth. Only in rare instances—I think, for instance, of the Boland Amendment that prohibited intelligence agencies from supporting the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s, and the six-month (not days) limit that Congress placed on President Reagan’s troop commitment in Lebanon in 1983—will Congress come together to attempt to tie the President’s hands in a war situation.  But those attempts mattered little.  The Boland Amendment failed to prevent President Reagan’s National Security Council from secretly funneling money to the Nicaraguan contras.  And Reagan pulled US troops from Lebanon after the disastrous attack on their barracks in Beirut.
  • Deference to the President on national security is the tradition, often couched in terms of not “hamstringing” him. Even the President’s most hostile critics will bend to his leadership when national security is believed to be at stake.
  • Republicans are more likely than Democrats to support presidential war making. Today, some of them—for example Senator Marco Rubio of Florida—are saying the President should have the authority to use “all means necessary” to defeat ISIS.  In other words, they want to go beyond what Obama is asking under the authorization resolution.  That’s the same mistake Congress made in 1964, in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, when it gave Lyndon Johnson a virtual blank check in Southeast Asia (“to take all necessary steps . . . to promote international peace and security”).
  • Presidents have many options when it comes to the use of force abroad—options that Congress can do little about. Look at what Obama has already done without Congress: bombing in Syria and Iraq, drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, air strikes against ISIS, and (just reported in the Times) Special Operations raids against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  Advisers, trainers, intelligence analysts, mercenaries—all of these are substitutes for
    “ground troops” that would otherwise be forbidden.
  • The one preventive Congressional action against an imperial presidency—the War Powers Act of 1983—has never been effective. No president has ever regarded it as a legitimate exercise of Congressional authority in war.  No president has been forced to abide by the WPA’s key provision: 60 days in which to get Congressional approval of a troop deployment or have to withdraw the troops.  Only a few presidents (including Obama) have even acknowledged the Act when planning military action abroad.  All presidents have insisted that as commander-in-chief they have all the constitutional authority they need to make war.
  • Thus, when Congress votes to authorize military action abroad, as they will shortly, what they are really doing is legitimizing what the President has already decided to do—and would do even in the absence of Congressional authorization.


No country is more militarily engaged than the US around the world—fighting three Middle East wars, sanctioning Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs (while leaving “all options on the table”), confronting Russia over Ukraine, and conducting intelligence, training, and other military support missions in many countries in Africa, Latin America, and East Asia.  Congress can attempt to frustrate the President’s policies on any of these issues, but the President literally calls the shots.  The current authorization resolution will not be an exercise in democratic decision making or checks-and-balances.  It will be an exercise in executive power, with no real limits.  Forget about Obama’s proposal of a three-year commitment, and no US ground troops.  These “limits” are easily overcome by later appeals to helping US allies, “protecting our troops,” and of course promoting “the national interest.”

The United States is a warfare society, no matter whether under a liberal or a conservative administration.  A warfare society produces two lasting realities: a social deficit, in which crucial homeland problems are shortchanged by military expenditures; and a moral deficit, in which “national security” is consistently distorted to justify interfering in others’ struggles, on the pretense that American motives are benevolent and American values are universally shared.  As Martin Luther King said in his famous speech on Vietnam in 1967, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”  So it seems.

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