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Syria and the Capping of Executive War Powers

Syria may have been a bridge too far for untrammeled executive war powers. That’s good for democracy.

Robert E. Kelly
Syria and the Capping of Executive War Powers
Credit: REUTERS/Evan Vucci/POOL

For decades, particularly since the Korean War, American presidents have insisted that they may deploy force on behalf of the nation without much Congressional oversight and, at best, vague Congressional consent. Call it the “resolution system,” for lack of a better term: The president deems a conflict worthy of U.S. involvement, but he wants to duck the formalism and high stakes of a de jure Congressional war declaration per the Constitution (Article 1, section 8, clause 11). So he asks instead for a “resolution” which expresses the “sense” of the Congress or something suitably vague like that.

Next, the president insists that he is permitted to use force without Congress approval, as President Obama did in his Syria television address in September. This makes the Congressional vote “constitutional theater,” as Senator Rand Paul described the Syria debate, because no one really knows if the vote is binding. Ideally Congress votes for the war effort. Second best for the president would be that Congress backs down on a formal vote, and the president can fight with silent semi-approval in the legislature, as in Korea and Vietnam. Worst would be a clear Congressional vote against U.S. involvement, which the president then chooses to simply ignore. (As the first President Bush put it: “I didn’t have to get permission from some old goat in Congress to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.”) Such an outcome would threaten a genuine Constitutional crisis over war powers that would likely end before the Supreme Count. This has never explicitly happened, although Obama flirted with it twice: once in Libya, where the House of Representatives voted down U.S. involvement, and second in Syria recently, where the scheduled votes in the Congress were likely to go against the president before Putin “rescued” Obama from a serious separation of powers confrontation.

Finally, the president refuses to accept the 1973 War Powers Resolution with its 90-day troop deployment limit, and tries to budget his conflict to avoid any special funding votes that might informally become a referendum on his wars. Both Johnson in Vietnam and George W. Bush in Iraq pushed this financing principle to the limit. The imperial presidency is a bipartisan phenomenon. Ideally, all this flim-flam keeps the political noise down long enough for the not-quite-declared non-war to be concluded on favorable terms. In turn, this reinforces the next White House occupant’s willingness to pursue “resolutions” instead of Constitutional war declarations.

The constitutionality of this cyclic resolution system is murky at best, particularly given the clear war powers clause already in the Constitution and the Framers’ well-documented fear of kings (or presidents) going to war too easily. Like the recent efflorescence of presidential signing statements, war resolutions are executive branch legal freelancing with hotly contested legitimacy that has never been tested at the Supreme Court. It is widely understood that wily Obama went to Congress on Syria only after the politics shifted dramatically against him, responding to the combined weight of Prime Minister David Cameron’s lost Syria vote in the House of Commons, the refusal of the UN and the Arab League to back strikes, and high public resistance at home to involvement. In early September, Obama really had only the French government – not even its people, who also opposed strikes and wanted a parliamentary vote – and the U.S. foreign policy community, with its unshakeable conventional wisdom that the exertion of U.S. power is good, especially in the Middle East. Had the British come through as expected, Obama would likely have stuck to the French path of claiming executive privilege to use force, regardless of legislative and public opinion.

In this, the House of Commons’ no-vote, and Cameron’s respect for its decision, has done a great service to rule of law and the accountability of the executive branch in the West, and perhaps turned a page in the recent Western way of war. It should go without saying that elected presidents and prime ministers are not elected monarchs with a blank check. It may be that Western constitutions give executives wide latitude – although this is usually contested – but executive branch unilateralism is always distasteful, as it is essentially undemocratic. And when that unilateralism involves the use of major force, the killing of other people in the public’s name, it is simply improper regardless of the clever legalisms executive branch lawyers may spin.

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There are of course instances when presidents must use force without legislative approval. National emergencies such as 9/11 and Pearl Harbor are obvious examples. In such moments of high peril, when the state is clearly under attack, the unity, speed and efficiency of the executive branch is critical. Indeed these qualities are the very reason the Framers gave the war-making power to the president as commander-in-chief. No one accepts that hundreds of legislators, many with no military training, should run wars, even in a democracy. But where time is not pressing, where there is no imminent threat to the homeland or a crucial U.S. asset overseas, why not consult the people’s representatives? What possible justification is there to avoid democratic consultation in a participative debate, besides the antidemocratic pretensions of the “imperial presidency?” Does anyone genuinely believe it is healthy for democracies to foreclose public and legislative debate on a question as momentous as the use of force? To my mind, the burden of proof should in fact run the other way: only where there is a clear and present national danger, where time is critical (such as in now-outdated Cold War nuclear war scenarios) should executives be permitted use major force without meaningful legislative debate and, ideally, approval.

Two presidentialist arguments deserve consideration. First, one might suggest that when the U.S. Constitution was written, “sub-war” conflicts were less current. Hence there is no clear constitutional guidance on the president’s authority in situations like Kosovo, Libya or Syria. None of those were “wars,” commonly-defined, for Americans. There was no danger to the U.S., no U.S. boots on the ground, and U.S. costs in blood and treasure were slight. But there is no obvious reason why the president should have such extensive combat-initiation rights in such scenarios, but not if we call them “wars.” To accept that logic simply tells the president to avoid calling anything a “war” in order to side-step Congress. That may be constitutional or legal – and that is in fact how Johnson fought Vietnam and Bush fought Iraq 2 until things really soured – but does anyone really think a democracy should be characterized by executives so blatantly skirting the spirit of the law with gimmicky legalisms? This is precisely why the War Powers Resolution was passed.

Second, one could note the disunity of the legislature, its weak foreign and security policy skills, its willingness to hold votes hostage for narrow side-payments and so on. By contrast, unitary executives see farther, act more coherently, and aggregate the national interest into one voice. The executive is the only nationally elected figure and enjoys a unique legitimacy, particularly in dealing with foreigners. All this is indeed true, but to accept it as cause for independent executive military action without the legislature is to brush with dictatorship. For these arguments are precisely those of the Beijing Consensus. Democracies do not privilege speed and efficiency in decision-making, no matter how much frustrated foreign policy elites may wish it so.

Democracies are to be the opposite – deliberative and participative and, inevitably, slow. This is not a flaw; this is wisdom and the prudence of consensual rather than oligarchic government. And the track record of elite war choices is hardly stellar. Vietnam and Iraq were both elite pet-projects pushed onto a wary legislature and public, suggestive of the Framer’s wisdom in removing the war decision from one person. As the U.S. pivots to Asia with the obvious possibility of armed conflict with China, do we really want a presidency with weakly tethered war-making powers?

So resist the shallow media caricature of Cameron’s defeat in the House and Obama’s likely defeat in the Congress as the end of Britain’s role in the world or the premature lame-ducking of the president. A deeper, richer interpretation is that these moments are the return of democratic checks-and-balances in a competency where they have been dormant too long and have given us catastrophes like Vietnam, Iraq and a drone war that murders overseas Americans without due-process. These votes may be bad for this or that passing occupant of the West’s high offices, but there are healthy for our democracies and public control of government.

Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website, AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com.