The Decision To Go To War

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Friday, November 7, 2008
As Congress struggled to stave off financial meltdown recently, it was hard to imagine that it could ever face a more serious issue. Yet from time to time it does: when it ponders whether or not to send young Americans to war. 

Watching the gyrations on Capitol Hill over the economic bailout, I couldn't help but reflect that while there was great uncertainty about how Congress would respond to the economic crisis — Would it side with the White House plan? Would it modify the plan or try to come up with an alternative of its own? — there is rarely uncertainty about war. If the President wants it, he gets it. 

Our nation has long argued over whether this is how things should be. To my mind, the Constitution seems clear on the subject, stating in Article I, Section 8, that “Congress shall have power...to declare War.” Yet it also refers to the President as “Commander in Chief,” and in the ambiguity left by those two phrases it has seeded an ongoing political debate over how much right Congress has to tie the President's hands when it comes to the commitment of troops abroad. The courts, recognizing a political morass, have steered clear of the subject, leaving it to Congress and the White House to sort things out, and by and large not settling the question of which branch may exercise which powers. 

Since World War II, the White House has prevailed. Harry Truman contended he didn't need congressional approval to fight in Korea. Congress sat on the sidelines for the invasions of Panama and Grenada in the 1980s, and made only modest steps to assert itself when U.S. troops got involved in Somalia in 1992, Haiti in 1994, and the Balkans in the mid–1990s. It willingly gave its go–ahead to the Vietnam War and the two wars in Iraq, turning power completely over to the President to do as he wished. 

In essence, for over a half–century Congress has been content to act as an afterthought, rather than the President's equal when it comes to war–making. It has left the question of when to go to war up to the President. 

The political reasons for this abdication of responsibility are straightforward. Committing U.S. troops to battle is a high–stakes move, and members of Congress would rather not have to make that decision themselves. It is far easier simply to let the President do it, then give him credit if he called it right and condemn him if he didn't. Moreover, the American people have a history of siding overwhelmingly with presidents who make the call for war; standing in the way is politically risky for any member of Congress — except in hindsight, as the current war in Iraq and the earlier war in Vietnam have demonstrated. None of this was what the Framers envisioned. The Constitution was drafted at a time of deep distrust of monarchy and, indeed, all forms of concentrated power. No single person, our founders believed, should have the responsibility for making the gravest decision a president can make: whether to send young men (and, now, women) into battle. 

While 2008 is not 1789, and the world is a very different, more dangerous place than when the country was founded, I find myself in basic agreement with the founders. In our representative democracy, it is Congress — not the President — that gives voice to the concerns of ordinary Americans. Yet from war–making to the budget to setting the national agenda, Congress in recent decades has been all too willing to take a back seat to presidential authority. It has lost the skills and the political will that would allow it to be a co–equal branch of government. 

So while it is too much to expect that, when it comes to the profound issue of war, Congress will suddenly start re–asserting itself in a major way, I don't think it's too much to ask it to start rebuilding its competence as a consultative body. Simply put, presidents should consult widely, surely beyond their closest advisors and especially with Congress, before they make the decision to go to war. If the President is determined to send Americans into battle, there is very little anyone can do to stop him. But ensuring that members of Congress and others can ask hard questions before the final decision is made at least offers a chance for wise and cool heads to weigh the risks, and for national policy–makers to proceed without blinkers on. 

In the end, the calculation is simple. Going to war is the most important decision a government can make, because it means that young people will die. That decision ought not be made by one person, even if that person is the President of the United States. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)