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The President’s war

political analysis by Dr. Robert Willougby, chair of the political science department at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith

Editor's note: This commentary is part of a collaboration between the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and The City Wire to deliver an ongoing series of political-based essays and reports. Dr. Robert Willoughby, who first came to UAFS in 2006, has been head of the department since 2010. He has a doctorate in American history and government from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Willoughby has a wide range of teaching experiences, ranging from public middle and high school to small, private colleges and state universities. He has also published articles and books and has delivered numerous papers at history conferences.

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.

The recent advances of the ISIS insurgency in Iraq, which threatens to undo what this country poured so much blood and treasure into is disturbing to many Americans, particularly veterans of the conflict, who are left with the question on their lips, “what was it for?”

The entire issue of war and peace, and the policies of our national government governing such, have appeared to become solely the whim of whomever the sitting President is, and the generally rubber stamp Congress which defers to him, regardless of the soundness of reason, or hard evidence that to commit so much blood and treasure is really in the nation, and therefore, the people’s interest.

Our constitution offers scant detail about the monumental issue of war and peace. And while the founding fathers did clearly discuss it, and reach sound conclusions, it appears that in their economy of words, they left some big issues unresolved for future generations to interpret rightly or wrongly for themselves.

In the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 gives the Congress the power, “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;”.

This idea was not new to the founding fathers as they had put the same idea in the wording of the Articles of Confederation which preceded the Constitution. “Article IX. The United States in Congress assembled, shall have the sole and exclusive power of determining on peace and war,” the exception being if the United States were under immediate and direct attack from an enemy in which case the state militias would be on their own as there was no money for a true national army.

The founding fathers did not universally agree on letting Congress make all the calls on war and peace. In the notes of James Madison we see comments over whether to use the word “make” or “declare” in the context of war and who should have the power to decide. “Mr. Pinkney[sic] ( Charles Pinckney of South Carolina) opposed vesting this power in the Legislature. Its proceedings were too slow. The Senate would be the best depositary, being more acquainted with foreign affairs.” Or, as Madison noted, “Mr. Butler, (Pierce Butler of South Carolina) he was for vesting the power in the President, who will have all the requisite qualities, and will not make war but when the Nation will support it.”

That is an amazing statement when considering the record of our presidents since the end of World War II. That founding father likely never imagined the American people would ever elect anyone like George Bush or Barack Obama.

“Mr. Mason (George Mason of Virginia) was agst [sic] giving the power of war to the Executive, because not safely to be trusted with it, or to the Senate because not so constructed as to be entitled to it.”

Mr. Gerry (Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts) stated, “The Senate are more liable to be corrupted by an Enemy than the whole Legislature.” Some of the founding fathers wanted the word “peace” inserted after the reference to war, but that was voted down. In the end they settled on the clause as written, giving the legislature, not the executive the power to declare war.

Pierce Butler, the delegate above mentioned, argued during the ratification fight in 1788, that, “Some gentlemen were inclined to give this power to the President; but it was objected to, as throwing into his hands the influence of a monarch, having an opportunity of involving his country in a war whenever he wished or promoted her destruction.”

It would be easy to assume that few if any 20th Century presidents or members of Congress ever bothered to read the words of the founding fathers for guidance on the matter of war or peace. It is even more realistic to believe that few if any presidents ever read a history book, about Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia or anyplace they have committed so much blood and treasure to before going in.

Anyone can clearly argue that our world is very different than that of the late 18th Century when the Constitution was written, therefore those ideas are moot. The Congress does not need to debate or contemplate going to war in our fast moving world. In the nuclear age, when pushing the button to launch an ICBM could destroy human civilization in a matter of 30 minutes, or more recently the need for rapid retaliation for a terrorist attack, we must again rely on the words of Mr. Butler written down so long ago, “the President, who will have all the requisite qualities, and will not make war but when the Nation will support it.”

I have made it sound like the Congress has shrugged off its constitutional duties in deciding war and peace and delegated them solely to the president over the last 70 years, but not so.

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“The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Ex. is the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legislature. But the Doctrines lately advanced strike at the root of all these provisions, and will deposit the peace of the Country in the department which the Constitution distrusts as most ready without cause to renounce it.”

Those words were written by James Madison to Thomas Jefferson in April 1798, in response to then President John Adams planning war with France over interference with American trade.

So despite what the founding fathers intended, the members of the Congress of the United States have over the centuries abdicated their prerogative on the issue of war and peace, the spilling and spending of our nation’s blood and treasure. If the war goes badly, as it no doubt will in Iraq, they cannot be held responsible as a body or individually, because it was indeed the President’s war.

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Comments

Hand over their heart not covering the American flag pin..

..there they are all standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial saying they're sorry to have to send you and there they are all over the place a year or so later with or without the flag pin and many are now arguing about how they were mislead into doing it. Let's stand for a mile in their Pierre Cardins here though. There was no good answer if the dominoes all fell tomorrow or another plane crashed next month. Soon they apparently do tend to become a Presidents war just as you say Dr. Willougby. Which one?