Presidents, war and the ‘requisite skills’

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.

In my last posting I wrote about the constitutional power of Congress in the act of taking the nation to war. The founding fathers seemed adamant on the idea that the representatives of the people have a say on the expenditure of blood and treasure and that it should not be entrusted to the whim or fancy of a single person.

However, once war was declared or commenced, the founding fathers were universal on the idea that a single person should in fact direct the said conflict and command the forces in defense of the nation. Therefore, in Article II, Section 2, they wrote: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;”

The founding fathers specifically did not follow the English model, which had been clearly stated by the famous jurist Sir William Blackstone, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, who concluded: “In Great Britain, the king is not only commander-in-chief of the army, and navy, and militia, but he can declare war, and, in time of war, can raise armies and navies, and call forth the militia of his own mere will. It is the undoubted right of his majesty; and both houses or either house of the parliament cannot, nor ought to pretend to the same.”

The English model only allowed the Parliament to enter the discussion of war or peace based on their ability to withhold funds to pay for such wars as the king pursued. The founding fathers did write into our constitution in Article I, Section 8 that no appropriation for the army or navy could extend past two years, but they clearly did not want the president acting as the king in other matters regarding war.

When one looks at the debate of the founding fathers regarding the role of the president as commander-in-chief, none of them doubted giving him sole charge of the nation’s forces in time of conflict. Alexander Hamilton summed it up best when he wrote: “The direction of war implies the direction of common strength; and the power of directing and employing the common strength, forms a usual and essential part in the definition of the executive authority.”

About the only thing that was argued about was whether the president should actually take field command of said forces. Some made the point that should the presumed first president, George Washington, decide to take direct field command, that it would be fine. Others argued that later presidents might not have the acumen to lead forces and might, as George Mason concluded, “be dangerous to let him command in person, without restraint, as he might make a bad use of it.”

The assumption of the founding fathers was based on the idea that whoever was elected president would have the “requisite skills,” to carry out that part of their constitutional duties. It needs to be noted here that as early as the administration of the second president, John Adams, that the Congress had already abdicated or redefined their role in the use of military force by allowing the president to use the tiny fleet of frigates that constituted the United States Navy to engage in full combat the ships of the revolutionary French government and the Barbary pirates to protect American shipping in the West Indies and Mediterranean Sea. Adams did so, and other presidents have done so since, in effect committing the blood and treasure of the nation on their “own mere will.”

And so, without interference from the Congress, the last three presidents, Clinton, Bush, and Obama have poured our blood and treasure in distant lands, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, (but blessedly kept us out of Egypt and Syria), under the guise of fighting terrorism and ruthless dictatorships. True, the dictatorships were ruthless, but they did provide stability to a region that had a long history of tribalism, feuds, and rule by kings, emperors, sultans, and caliphates.

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The cost of the destabilization of the Islamic world in this century can directly be turned back on the foreign policy and military adventures of in order; a former governor of Arkansas, a former governor of Texas, and a Chicago political organizer and junior senator, none of whom possessed the “requisite skills,” needed to be commander-in-chief.

Blame whom you will, the political parties, the do-nothing Congress, the lazy or uninformed electorate, but the bottom line is this, in the words of the noted columnist George Will, “our foreign policy in the Middle East is like the Pottery Barn rule, ‘you break it, you buy it.’” Now the nation has ownership of a giant shattered vase with not a bottle of glue in sight.

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Comments

What if it's only a Conflict and not yet a War

but still it lasts for a decade or so? Somewhere within our maze of rules is probably why that name happened. Also I believe it is Congress OK's official war but doesn't the War Powers Act give the president 90 days plus time to withdraw troops or continue bombing even if they aren't inside anywhere they need to withdraw from? It looks a lot like Presidents of the US just do whatever they want and our only recourse is to take it out on who doesn't come next.