The U.S. Constitution entrusts Congress with exclusive authority over offensive use of the military under Article I, section 8, clause 11.
Its architects presumed that Congress would make wiser decisions than the president in matters of war and peace because members confront no conflict of interest and are inclined to act deliberately rather than rashly. In times of war, congressional power diminishes. Members do not receive monuments or obelisks memorializing their votes in favor of war. They have no ulterior motives to support purposeless, objectless wars unrelated to self-defense.
The president is the opposite. James Madison, father of the Constitution, elaborated the multiplicity of self-interested motives that will chronically prompt presidents to fight stupid, counterproductive wars. The human lust for glory and power never changes:
“In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. Beside the objection to such a mixture to heterogeneous powers, the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man; not such as nature may offer as the prodigy of many centuries, but such as may be expected in the ordinary successions of magistracy. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasures are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honours and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honourable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.”
The Constitution’s framers remembered the ridiculous War of Jenkins’ Ear fought by the British king to sell slaves in Spanish America.
American history vindicates Madison.
Recurring presidential wars without express congressional declarations have wasted the lives of Americans at staggering cost with no benefit to the United States.
President Harry Truman’s Korean War (1950-53) cost the lives of more than 36,000 troops at a cost $67 billion. It ended with a truce, not a peace treaty. More than 60 years later, the United States continues to station 28,500 troops in South Korea to defend it against an armed attack.
The Korean War was superflous to the national security. Korea was occupied by Japan from 1910-1945 with no adverse ramifications for the United States. Even if South Korea had been conquered by North Korea, Japan and China would have checked its adventurism. And if the United States had refrained from a policy of regime change in North Korea by removing our troops after the 1953 truce, it would probably have refrained from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Congress would not have authorized the Korean War, which is why Truman never sought the authorization. Congressional hearings would have exposed the false premise that North Korea’s attack was part of a worldwide monolithic Communist plan to dominate the entire planet.
President Lyndon B. Johnson initiated the Vietnam War pursuant to an unconstitutional delegation from Congress, i.e., the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The presidential war pivoted on the fallacious “domino theory” that if South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam, all of Asia would fall like dominoes into the Communist orbit. The North conquered the South in 1975, but no other dominoes fell. And today the United States is defending Vietnam from Chinese maritime bellicosity in the South China Sea.
The United States squandered $1 trillion on the war, while suffering more than 58,000 battlefield deaths. John Kerry, the current Secretary of State, asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
President George H.W. Bush initiated the Persian Gulf War to evict Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. It restored the tyrannical House of Al-Sabah dynasty to power, and weakened Saddam as an adversary of arch-enemy Iran. The war was nominally successful, but irrelevant to the security of the United States.
President William Jefferson Clinton initiated war against Bosnia in 1995 without congressional authorization. It was justified by the absurd assertion that stability in the Balkans was a cornerstone of American safety. Nineteen years after Mr. Clinton’s military intervention, Bosnia remains ethnically and religiously divided between Serbs and a Muslim-Croat Federation, which the war was fought to prevent.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The costs to date approximate $4 trillion to $6 trillion. Thousands of Americans have been killed in battle. Both countries are convulsed, lawless states wracked by tribal, religious and ethnic divisions. The Iraq War was ridiculous from the start. It made Iran the regional hegemon, including a predominant influence in Shiite-dominated Iraq.
Mr. Obama’s wars against Libya and the Islamic State rank as two of the greatest follies in the history of warfare. In the former, we overthrew Muammar Gaddafi after he had abandoned weapons of mass destruction and created a power vacuum filled by hundreds of extremist militias armed to the teeth with conventional weapons seized from Gaddafi’s arsenals. The war to degrade and destroy the Islamic State is already proven fool’s errand destined to squander more lives and money. It preposterously posits brigades of moderate, secular, Sunni rebels eager to play George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to bring democratic dispensations to Syria and Iraq.
It is time to abandon the myth of presidential infallibility or superiority in matters of war and peace. Congress is a better bet for the reasons elaborated by Madison.
For more information about Bruce Fein, visit brucefeinlaw.