Friday, June 24, 2011

To War or Not To War

During the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primaries, there were many (among whom I include myself) who felt that Hilary Clinton would have made a better President than her rival, Barack Obama, precisely because her greater experience in government and familiarity with Washington stood in such conspicuous contrast to Obama's lack thereof. Of course, and not for the first time in recent history, first the Party and then the nation opted for the "outsider" over the "insider" - with some predictable consequences.

President Obama's present problem with Congress, however, is another story entirely. The debate about the intervention in Libya and the resulting votes today in the House are just the latest instance of a dilemma which has hovered over the foreign policy efforts of recent presidents and is rooted ultimately in the separating and mixing of powers which is so characteristic of the US Constitution. That magisterial document gave the President the primary power to conduct foreign policy and made him Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (functions clearly beyond the capacity of any Congress), but simultaneously left to the Congress the power to declare war and to approve military expenditures. In most democratic countries, a Government which has the confidence of its Parliament can govern - and that includes waging war. If the war goes badly, of course, then there is always a chance that the Government will lose the confidence of Parliament - as most famously happened in Britain in May 1940, when Winston Churchill replaced neville Chamberlain. Or there can be an election, as happened in Spain several years ago, when the party in power was replaced by a party with a different foreign policy. Obviously, those are much neater solutions which avoid the institutional awkwardness that increasingly characterizes contemporary American war-making.

On 5 occasions in American history (the War of 1812, the Mexican War, The Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II), the Constitution worked just fine - because it was followed. The president requested, and Congress passed, a Declaration of War. Beginning the Korean Conflict in 1950, modern Presidents have resisted the obvious option of asking Congress for a Declaration of War - even when it most likely would have been granted. There is, of course, no more supine institution than the American Congress. Almost always reluctant to exercise real leadership, it has usually been content to allow modern Presidents to act militarily as appeared to be warranted, but then later (if and when popular opinion has turned against the adventure) Congress has attempted to reclaim its rightful role. But only in part, of course. The famous War Powers Act of 1973 - Congressional "Buyer's Remorse" over Vietnam, made possible because of the extremely weakened condition of the post-Watergate Presidency - still accepted that Presidents would wage war on their own initiative (a contemporary necessity for which, however, there is no basis in the Constitution), but then attempted put in place a post-factum process to legitimize or de-legitimize military action.

Whatever one's views of the War Powers Act, it was an attempt to reassert an important principle - if not the increasingly impractical principle that only Congress can declare war, then at least the more fundamental principle that in a democratic polity the President's power to wage war must retain the confidence of the legislative branch. Likewise, whatever one thinks of the intervention in Libya, it's hard to believe waging war in Libya without congressional authorization would be better than waging war with such authorization (even after-the-fact).

I can easily understand the institutional imperative that makes any president want to defend the maximum interpretation of the power of the office. What properly keeps that imperative in check is not so much the assertion of congressional prerogative as the political imperative to retain the confidence of the country in the President's policy. That is why most modern presidents have often found it to their advantage to seek not necessarily authorization but support from Congress. President Obama's reluctance to do so seems staggeringly foolish - as well as arrogant. The arrogance may be understandable. This President probably considers himself the smartest man in the room - and probably is most of the time, certainly if he's being compared with Congress. But arrogance is always dangerous. And it can easily lead an Administration in a direction that undermines its own goals and policies. After all, who is the ultimate beneficiary of the President's failure to get Congress more on board on Libya? The one with the most to gain from this intramural dispute is, of course, Qaddafi.

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