Since the killing of Iranian General Suleimani there is howling debate concerning the scope of the president’s war powers to carry out killings, and hostile actions against countries we are not at war with.
Democrats calling the actions unconstitutional, introduced a useless, non-binding resolution, expressing “disapproval” so they have media talking points. The President claims attacks on the U.S. were imminent but has not provided evidence of any attacks. Moreover, reports indicate the President’s decision was made months ago, thereby undercutting claims of imminent attack.
What is U.S. policy on the use of force against countries we are not at war with?
Under the War Powers Act of 1973, Congress grants the President, in the absence of a Declaration of War, limited powers to use force where imminent involvement of hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances. When the President relies on this law, he must submit to Congress a report setting forth the circumstances requiring armed forces, a statement of legal authority, and the scope and duration of the conflict. The submission of the report to Congress, triggers a 60-day time limit on the use of force, unless Congress extends the time.
Additionally, in 2001, Congress enacted the Authorized for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, (“AUMF”) which allows the use of all necessary and appropriate force against nations, persons or organizations that carried out the 2001 terrorists’ attacks against the U.S.
The President, as commander-in-chief, believes these powers so broad that almost any action is viewed as authorized. Congress complains about not being consulted before or briefed after the fact, but it delegated broad war-making powers to the President. Moreover, Congress has little ability to reclaim its war powers since it does not have the votes to override a presidential veto.
As a result of delegated authority, the President has broad war-making power and Congress has few options to restrain its use. Without restraint, the U.S. morphs into a warrior nation.
As a nation, we are 231 years from the ratification of the Constitution. In that time, the U.S. has been at war 138 years. Only five wars, totaling 32 years of war were fought under a congressional declaration of war – The War of 1812, The Mexican War, The Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II (six separate declarations of war against specific countries).
While the structures of the War Powers Act and AUMF are reasonable attempts to balance Congress’ power to declare war against the President’s power as commander-in-chief, the balance depends on the good faith of our leaders to honor their oath of office, i.e. loyalty to the Constitution and the institution they serve. Unfortunately, today, loyalty is to political party.
President Reagan deployed troops to El Salvador but did not submit a report to Congress, or comply with a withdrawal requirement. President George H.W. Bush sent troops to the middle-east and President Clinton sent troops to former Yugoslavia. Both asserted they were acting under UN authority, and not subject to congressional time-limits.
Presidents George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump relied on AUMF at least 39 times for actions in 19 countries. Lawsuits were filed to enforce the notification provisions of the War Powers Act. The lawsuits were dismissed as political questions to be determined by the respective branches of government.
The U.S. is stuck between presidents claiming almost complete power to wage war and a Congress, that has delegated sufficient authority to the President to justify assertions of power.
Wars cost lives, limbs, and destroy countries that we later rebuild as nation-builders. Wars drain the resources we need for our future well-being.
When President Clinton left office, the nation had a $5.791 trillion national debt. That debt includes World Wars I, II and Vietnam. It is estimated that when President Trump leaves office, the national debt will exceed $24 trillion. Since 2001, our national debt increased $18.6 trillion. During the same time period, the cost of our wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan) is estimated at $6.4 trillion. Wars since 2001 are responsible for 25% of our entire national debt. A Pew survey found about two-thirds of veterans say the war in the Middle East is not worth fighting. The general public holds a similar view.
None of us today will pay for the wars. Future generations will pay for them.
Congress and the President have created a constitutional crisis over the allocation of war powers. The President has the upper hand. Congress lacks the votes to override a veto of amending legislation. The courts will not address the conflict. This conflict is a threat to Democracy!
While Congress may be unable to enact laws limiting a president’s war powers; only Congress can appropriate money. Since funding a war requires an affirmative vote of the Senate and House, one House of Congress has the power to cut-off war funding. Without money the President cannot continue a war. This may result in shutting down the government, but it also results in Congress reclaiming its power to declare war.
If Congress is unwilling to declare war, there should be no war. If Congress funds wars, Congress has declared war. It is time Congress to be a responsible branch of government.