Wednesday, August 28, 2013

They're The Deciders

Why Today's Presidents Have More War-Waging Power Than Ever -- and Why No Congress Will Ever Stand In Their Way.

A recent article in Presidential Quarterly cited by my FP colleague Joshua Keating makes the case that well before World War II, American presidents were ignoring a Congress that often willingly acquiesced in many of America's small wars.
But there's no doubt, as Kalb demonstrates, that the trend over the past 80 years has intensified. Presidents act; Congress complies. Only five times in American history have presidents sought formal declarations of war from a Congress to which the Constitution gives the power to declare war:  the war of 1812,  the war with Mexico in 1846 (both heavily favored by many in Congress and organized there too), the Spanish-American war, and World Wars I and II.  Not since Dec. 7, 1941 has a president asked Congress for a formal declaration of war. Indeed, Harry Truman went into the Korean conflict without even informing Congress.
It's probably not all that surprising that presidents guard their foreign-policy prerogatives so zealously. What's perhaps more intriguing is how willing Congress has been to acquiesce and remove itself from the fight. As Kalb writes, "even though, Since World War II, presidents have ordered American troops into wars all over the world... they have not requested a declaration of war, and no one has been storming the White House demanding one." As we know, only once in 1973, frustrated by the never-ending war in Vietnam, did Congress move to assert its authority by passing the War Powers Act over President Richard Nixon's objection. But Congress never acted to put teeth into it.
Congressional consultation and declared wars don't necessarily guarantee successful wars. It's interesting to note that the only 20th-century war that was undeniably kind to a president's reputation and his electoral prospects -- while leaving the country stronger at home and abroad --was the last declared one: World War II. Most, if not all of America's subsequent undeclared wars -- Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have been pretty controversial affairs. Would it have made much of a difference had they been declared wars, and required congressional approval?
Foreign Policy: Do presidents want to go to war?
Marvin Kalb: No, but when a president faces that prospect these days, he finds it's easier now to lead the nation into war than at any other time in recent decades. His power on this issue has become paramount -- no other branch of government able or willing to take him on.
FP: Why? Has he literally acquired more power?
MK: Not in an institutional sense, but he has definitely acquired more power in matters of national security, governing a vast "military-industrial complex," to use President Eisenhower's apt phrase, and going off-budget to pay for controversial wars. In the chronic struggle between the executive and legislative branches of government, the executive usually wins, because the president can dominate the media and, more important, Congress, which has increasingly abdicated its constitutional powers to control war-and-peace decisions.
FPHow has it truly abdicated its powers?
MK: Congress is the only place in government that has the responsibility to "declare war." And yet, not since Dec. 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, has a president gone to Congress to request a "declaration of war," and since then, not once has Congress raised an angry voice to demand its proper role, even though the U.S. has fought in one war after another all over the world. What we have learned is that Congress can object to specific issues, such as the Benghazi disaster, but chooses to keep a tight lip on the question of whether the U.S. should go to war, apparently believing that it's politically safer for them to let the president make that decision.
FPIf Congress had to approve America's wars, would it make any difference?
MK: Not really -- not unless Congress set certain conditions for prosecuting the war, such as a time frame or a cost ceiling. Congress has approved of wars in the form of an approving resolution -- the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example; but the president has the ultimate responsibility for setting policy for the war, conducting the war, and finding a way out of the war.
FPWhy has Congress acquiesced so much of the time?
MK: Because Congress does not want the responsibility for the costs of a war, measured in bodybags and budget shortfalls. Politicians are so encumbered these days by fundraising obligations, by party pressures and challenges, by the everyday responsibilities of the job that they are relieved to play a subordinate role to the executive in questions of war and peace.
FPHas a president ever gone to war without even informing Congress?
MK: Yes, Harry Truman in June 1950. He had promised Congress immediately after the end of World War II that if he ever had to send troops to fight in another war, he would first go to Congress and ask at least for a resolution of approval -- not a declaration of war but a congressional amber light of approval. But in fact, when the North Koreans invaded South Korea in June 1950, Truman believed the U.S. had to enter the war, but he did not go to Congress. He went instead to the United Nations, where he obtained the approval of the Security Council. This set a pattern, never violated since. The president has not needed Congress to take the country to war. He could ignore Congress or, more recently, get only a nod of approval for his war policy and action. If he wanted to go to war, he could -- easier now than ever.
FPDoes the presence of an all-volunteer military make it easier or harder for a president to go to war?
MK: Easier, by far. In medieval times, a monarch had his own army, and he could go to war in the secure knowledge that he did not have to worry about the loyalty of his troops. He paid them adequately, and they fought. In the Vietnam War, the American army was manned, in large number but not a majority, by drafted recruits, many of whose parents objected to American policy and voted and demonstrated accordingly. President Nixon ended the draft, in large measure to quiet the roiling streets of America. Now, with the draft obliterated, and with only .6 percent of the American people engaged in volunteer duty in the military, 99.4 percent have little or nothing to do with the military -- and therefore raise no objection of political consequence to any president's war policy or action. At the whim of a "pseudo-monarch," to quote former Senator James Webb, a president can lead the country into war with little to no resulting political damage to him and with no strong opposition from Congress. A pseudo-monarch, indeed.
FPWhat then does Congress do?
MK: Congress still provides the money for war, a kind of legislative benediction when the decision is made by the president to go to war, but it does little else. It rarely if ever has challenged a president, using its powerful purse strings, on the decision to go to war. During the Cold War and the current war against global terrorism, Congress appears content to nibble at the edges of a war policy, to debate the merits of a presidential decision to go to war, to vote yes or no on a resolution of approval, but never to challenge the decision itself by withholding funds to pay for the war. No congressman or senator wants to be on record as denying troops the money or the means to fight a war, no matter how controversial the decision to go to war.
FPHas Congress never acted against a presidential decision to go to war? 
MK: Once: In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act as a desperate way of stopping the Vietnam War, which at the time appeared to be endless and far too costly and a questionable adventure. The act stipulated that a president could go to war for 60 days and then add 30 more days if absolutely necessary and if cleared by Congress. But when the Libya operation got underway in 2011, President Obama engaged the American military in its execution without getting congressional approval. A few in Congress objected but did essentially nothing, and Obama continued his Libya operations until he decided, on his own, to end them. On this issue, even a law meant nothing.
FPWhat about the media? Does it have any role in fashioning public policy on issues of war and peace?
MK: The media today plays an enormous role in public policy -- more powerful than ever before. From a technological perspective, it can take advantage of the Internet and cover everything, anywhere in the world. It's always there. But at the same time the media is encumbered by economic and competitive pressures that have led to the shutting down of traditional newspapers and magazines, the lowering of journalistic standards, the rush to be first when a moment of reflection might avoid a costly error. The lessons seem to be: Stay away from controversies about war and peace, join the parade, show your patriotism, and sport an American flag in your lapel. Antagonizing the White House is not a good route to exclusives, bestowed on reporters by clever executives who know how to manipulate the media for political advantage.  Now, more than ever before, as presidential powers grow on matters of war and peace, media scrutiny of the executive branch and courage in pursuit of the truth become essential ingredients of our democracy. With Congress in a diminished state of curiosity, there is no other cop on the block of freedom.

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