Written by George Friedman
In my book “The Next Decade,” I spend a good deal of time considering the relation of the American Empire to the
World War II was the last war the
The first is to prevent the president from taking the country to war without the consent of the governed, as represented by Congress. Second, by providing for a specific path to war, it provides the president power and legitimacy he would not have without that declaration; it both restrains the president and empowers him. Not only does it make his position as commander in chief unassailable by authorizing military action, it creates shared responsibility for war. A declaration of war informs the public of the burdens they will have to bear by leaving no doubt that Congress has decided on a new order — war — with how each member of Congress voted made known to the public.
Almost all Americans have heard Franklin Roosevelt’s speech to Congress on Dec. 8, 1941: “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan … I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, Dec. 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”
It was a moment of majesty and sobriety, and with Congress’ affirmation, represented the unquestioned will of the republic. There was no going back, and there was no question that the burden would be borne. True, the Japanese had attacked the
Forgoing the Declaration
It is odd, therefore, that presidents who need that authorization badly should forgo pursuing it. Not doing so has led to seriously failed presidencies: Harry Truman in
In understanding how war and constitutional norms became separated, we must begin with the first major undeclared war in American history (the Civil War was not a foreign war),
Truman’s view was that U.N. sanction for the war superseded the requirement for a declaration of war in two ways. First, it was not a war in the strict sense, he argued, but a “police action” under the U.N. Charter. Second, the U.N. Charter constituted a treaty, therefore implicitly binding the
If this was the founding precedent, the deepest argument for the irrelevancy of the declaration of war is to be found in nuclear weapons. Starting in the 1950s, paralleling the Korean War, was the increasing risk of nuclear war. It was understood that if nuclear war occurred, either through an attack by the Soviets or a first strike by the
Nuclear war was seen as the most realistic war-fighting scenario, with all other forms of war trivial in comparison. Just as nuclear weapons came to be called “strategic weapons” with other weapons of war occupying a lesser space, nuclear war became identical with war in general. If that was so, then constitutional procedures that could not be applied to nuclear war were simply no longer relevant.
Paradoxically, if nuclear warfare represented the highest level of warfare, there developed at the lowest level covert operations. Apart from the nuclear confrontation with the Soviets, there was an intense covert war, from back alleys in Europe to the
There was then the need to support allies, particularly in sending advisers to train their armies. These advisers were not there to engage in combat but to advise those who did. In many cases, this became an artificial distinction: The advisers accompanied their students on missions, and some died. But this was not war in any conventional sense of the term. And therefore, the declaration of war didn’t apply.
By the time
What Johnson did was use Cold War precedents, from the Korean War, to nuclear warfare, to covert operations to the subtle distinctions of contemporary warfare in order to wage a substantial and extended war based on the Tonkin Gulf resolution — which Congress clearly didn’t see as a declaration of war — instead of asking for a formal declaration. And this represented the breakpoint. In
Johnson did not know that he could get a declaration; the public might not be prepared to go to war. For this reason, rather than ask for a declaration, he used all the prior precedents to simply go to war without a declaration. In my view, that was the moment the declaration of war as a constitutional imperative collapsed. And in my view, so did the Johnson presidency. In hindsight, he needed a declaration badly, and if he could not get it,
After the war, Congress created the War Powers Act in recognition that wars might commence before congressional approval could be given. However, rather than returning to the constitutional method of the Declaration of War, which can be given after the commencement of war if necessary (consider World War II) Congress chose to bypass declarations of war in favor of resolutions allowing wars. Their reason was the same as the president’s: It was politically safer to authorize a war already under way than to invoke declarations of war.
All of this arose within the assertion that the president’s powers as commander in chief authorized him to engage in warfare without a congressional declaration of war, an idea that came in full force in the context of nuclear war and then was extended to the broader idea that all wars were at the discretion of the president. From my simple reading, the Constitution is fairly clear on the subject: Congress is given the power to declare war. At that moment, the president as commander in chief is free to prosecute the war as he thinks best. But constitutional law and the language of the Constitution seem to have diverged. It is a complex field of study, obviously.
An Increasing Tempo of Operations
All of this came just before the United States emerged as the world’s single global power — a global empire — that by definition would be waging war at an increased tempo, from Kuwait, to Haiti, to Kosovo, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, and so on in an ever-increasing number of operations. And now in Libya, we have reached the point that even resolutions are no longer needed.
It is said that there is no precedent for fighting al Qaeda, for example, because it is not a nation but a subnational group. Therefore, Bush could not reasonably have been expected to ask for a declaration of war. But there is precedent: Thomas Jefferson asked for and received a declaration of war against the
Had Bush requested a declaration of war on al Qaeda on Sept. 12, 2001, I suspect it would have been granted overwhelmingly, and the public would have understood that the
Leaving aside the military wisdom of
One of the dilemmas that could have been avoided was the massive confusion of whether the
The Importance of the Declaration
A declaration of war, I am arguing, is an essential aspect of war fighting particularly for the republic when engaged in frequent wars. It achieves a number of things. First, it holds both Congress and the president equally responsible for the decision, and does so unambiguously. Second, it affirms to the people that their lives have now changed and that they will be bearing burdens. Third, it gives the president the political and moral authority he needs to wage war on their behalf and forces everyone to share in the moral responsibility of war. And finally, by submitting it to a political process, many wars might be avoided. When we look at some of our wars after World War II it is not clear they had to be fought in the national interest, nor is it clear that the presidents would not have been better remembered if they had been restrained. A declaration of war both frees and restrains the president, as it was meant to do.
I began by talking about the American empire. I won’t make the argument on that here, but simply assert it. What is most important is that the republic not be overwhelmed in the course of pursuing imperial goals. The declaration of war is precisely the point at which imperial interests can overwhelm republican prerogatives.
There are enormous complexities here. Nuclear war has not been abolished. The
My readers will know that I am far from squeamish about war. I have questions about Libya, for example, but I am open to the idea that it is a low-cost, politically appropriate measure. But I am not open to the possibility that quickly after the commencement of hostilities the president need not receive authority to wage war from Congress. And I am arguing that neither the Congress nor the president have the authority to substitute resolutions for declarations of war. Nor should either want to. Politically, this has too often led to disaster for presidents. Morally, committing the lives of citizens to waging war requires meticulous attention to the law and proprieties.
As our international power and interests surge, it would seem reasonable that our commitment to republican principles would surge. These commitments appear inconvenient. They are meant to be. War is a serious matter, and presidents and particularly Congresses should be inconvenienced on the road to war. Members of Congress should not be able to hide behind ambiguous resolutions only to turn on the president during difficult times, claiming that they did not mean what they voted for. A vote on a declaration of war ends that. It also prevents a president from acting as king by default. Above all, it prevents the public from pretending to be victims when their leaders take them to war. The possibility of war will concentrate the mind of a distracted public like nothing else. It turns voting into a life-or-death matter, a tonic for our adolescent body politic.
"What Happened to the American Declaration of War? is republished with permission of STRATFOR
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