Analysis & Comment

Opinion | End the Imperial Presidency

By Stephen Wertheim

Mr. Wertheim, a historian and an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written extensively about America’s global power.

Suppose President Biden came before Congress to announce that ending the war in Afghanistan was only the beginning. In recent years, the United States has used force on the ground or conducted strikes from the air in at least nine countries: not only Afghanistan, but also Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. These wars go on in part because one person wages them. Congress has abdicated its constitutional duty to determine whether, where and whom America should fight.

Mr. Biden inherited this situation, but he need not perpetuate either the ongoing wars or the legal evasions that enable them. He could tell Congress this: It has six months to issue a formal declaration of the wars it wants to continue, or else the troops (and planes and drones) are coming home.

Were he to deliver such an ultimatum, Mr. Biden would, in a stroke, usher in a new era of U.S. foreign policy. Of course, the president would be attacked for shirking his responsibility. But the responsibility to declare war rightly belongs to Congress, and if Congress keeps passing the buck, then Mr. Biden, his successor or the voting public ought to insist that it fulfill its obligations. Otherwise, a lone individual will continue to direct the largest military the world has ever seen, while 333 million Americans fight, pay, and mostly watch our wars unfold.

If this idea sounds revolutionary, the real revolution came when Congress stopped declaring war altogether. For the Framers, the clause giving Congress the power to “declare war” ranked among the Constitution’s key innovations. James Madison considered it the wisest part of the document, because he thought the executive was “the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it.”

Prominent Americans once sought to raise the Constitution’s bar even higher. Following World War I, Representative Louis Ludlow of Indiana wanted to put war powers directly in the hands of the people; he proposed a radical constitutional amendment that would have required the entire country to vote on whether or not to declare war. For years, more than 70 percent of the public supported the measure, but the House of Representatives rejected it by a narrow margin in 1938.

In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress declared war. It has never done so again. For the next eight decades, the country traveled down a path diametrically opposed to the one Representative Ludlow envisioned. Setting out to police the world, presidents circumvented the congressional constraints once erected to stand in their way. As a result, when pundits cast blame for the chaos in Afghanistan, they debate which presidents to fault most: those who started and extended the war, or those who have sought to bring it to a close. Such finger pointing reinforces one cause not just of this particular disaster, but of the many metastasizing conflicts the country has undertaken since Sept. 11: the purposeful submission of Congress to the imperial presidency.

In 2001, Congress passed an “authorization for use of military force,” an ersatz declaration that allowed the president to use force against any entity “he determines” to have some connection with those involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Representative Barbara Lee of California cast the only vote against the measure. She predicted it would plunge the United States into “an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.” She has been proved right.

Congress needs to adopt new standards, building on old ones. Back when Congress formally declared war, as it has done 11 times in history, it named the countries against which it was initiating hostilities. That practice was valuable because it left the United States at peace with the rest of the world; Congress would have to issue another declaration to expand those wars to new adversaries. The 2001 authorization contained no such specificity. It practically invited presidents to do what they’ve done: justify wars against a dizzying array of groups — some of whom we may not know about since the full list remains secret. (In 2002, Congress passed a second authorization of force against Iraq, which the Trump administration invoked last year to justify assassinating a major general of an entirely different country, Qassim Suleimani of Iran.)

If Congress is to be effective in declaring war, it should specify not only the enemy but also the military objective and geographical scope of the conflict. After a stipulated period of time, Congress should have to declare war again or let the war end.

This summer, an unlikely trio of Senators advanced a similar proposal. Introduced by Chris Murphy, a Democrat; Mike Lee, a Republican; and Bernie Sanders, an Independent, the National Security Powers Act would tightly define new interventions, sunset authorizations after two years and automatically defund unlawful campaigns. Going further than simply repealing the two authorizations passed after Sept. 11, their new framework would change the very way we go to war — and, hopefully, prevent unnecessary conflicts altogether.

Legal procedures are no substitute for shrewd decisions and effective missions. But requiring Congress to choose which wars we fight could make positive outcomes more likely. As it stands, presidencies define war, and war defines presidencies. Lyndon Johnson sent 548,000 troops into Vietnam even though he doubted that they could win, because he believed he would personally be blamed if he stood by while Communists took over. Each of the 535 members of Congress has less to gain through martial glory and less to lose if unfavorable but unstoppable events transpire overseas. And only Congress can impose time limits on conflicts through its declarations, forcing the country to re-evaluate its wars before they become endless.

A long-supine Congress will not acquire a backbone on its own. Its members clearly prefer to shirk their duty so long as presidents and voters scarcely object. So it’s the rest of the political system that must act to make Congress do its job — by refusing to conduct wars that Congress won’t declare, or by punishing representatives who won’t hold essential votes.

Two decades after Sept. 11, many Americans would prefer to put global policing to rest. They should hardly have to depend on the self-restraint of their commander in chief, whether Donald Trump, Joe Biden or whoever comes next. Congress can and should decide whether we go to war. If it did, it might just deliver some peace.


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