Presidents and the War Power
Wednesday October 8, 2014
President Barack Obama's claim that he doesn't need congressional authorization for his current war in Iraq and Syria is troubling. The country's 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. Bush's invasion of Saddam Hussein's 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 nation's 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 book -- Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty -- once 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.