The line drawn between Presidential and Congressional war authority
When the US Constitution gives the rights of a power, theoretically, to two branches, where does the line get drawn? Within the Constitution, Congress is the only body that is given the clear ability to declare war, however, if the President is considered the Commander-in-Chief does he also hold this right? This is the foundation of the debate over Constitutional War powers, a debate of interpretation not fact, and is essential to the understanding of one way in which war works politically.
What exactly are the sides and why is it such an inconclusive issue?
Ironically, the source of information for both sides of the argument is the Constitution, it’s merely the interpretation that differs. On one side, people believe that the President should have no power in declaring war, a right only specifically stated to be given to Congress, and that “Commander-in-Chief” is only applicable once in the war itself. On another, people believe that the President, as the Commander-in-Chief, withholds the right to declare war at any time and, with hi title, lead the armies during the war. While many people fall to either extreme and not a middling view, the agreement made was called a “Resolution” (as neither of the extreme sides agree with the outcome, they merely settled for the best they could get).
The issue with this argument is that in no way can a law be set on something as immaterial as interpretation without some foundation of facts. The way in which we interpret words is not a valid way to decide what is and is not included in a document written over 200 years ago. As a result, this issue doesn’t necessarily have a straight answer. While I personally believe in the idea that a President should be able to take charge and lead his military in a time it is needed without some sort of approval, I recognize the issue of a dictatorial rule using military if it would be unchecked. However it is equally reckless to say that any and all military actions, even in immediate threat, should be taken through bodies of government before the President has any authority. While neither extreme is perfect, the individual is given a chance to decide which of the two outweighs its potential negative more than the other. However, as you can’t vote your opinion into a law, we developed the War Powers Resolution to come to at least a somewhat reasonable agreement.
What exactly does the War Powers Resolution entail?
The War Powers Resolution comes with two main parts: the communicative and the restrictive. The first part of this resolution is intended to maintain transparency and openness of information internally within our government. Under this part, upon committing military action without Congress’ approval, the President must notify Congress in the following 48 hours. Following this rule is one that restricts the President’s authority in these matters. By this resolution the President can only commit these forces to the war for a maximum of 60 days, along with 30 extra days which can be used to withdraw the troops (so 60 days of actual warfare). The only way to get out of the second part (at least legally) is to receive authorization or approval from Congress during the 60 days that you had to use the armed forces. In sum, by these standards a President can single handedly start and commit to a war (assuming we are attacked, in immediate threat, or are responding to an ally), but is limited to a period in order to restrict his power. Generally the terms under which this was discussed was to prevent “another Vietnam” in which we would get into a war our Congress and people didn’t agree to for a sustained period of time.
What was the result? Does it work efficiently?
Neither side got the result they wanted, true, but this system is as close of a resolution as could have been gotten without a swing one way. I believe the president should have more leeway, others want him to have less, the point is that (in theory at least) it works as a good agreement between two sides, something very rare to see in the political world. That’s in theory. Everything works in theory, otherwise it wouldn’t even be a discussion topic, so does it really work? Most agree the answer is no, a do I, even though i do support more presidential power. While i support this side, the question was not if I like the outcome, it was whether or not the bounds of the resolution stay in place, and they don’t. The resolution is widely considered to have been violated a number of times, all the way from its creation until the present. For example, leaders from President Clinton in Kosovo to President Obama in Libya have gone past this 60 day limit, but why haven’t they been impeached?
While law seems like a very strict set of rules, there is a myriad of interpretational and contextual issues that come into play making it more fluid, just like this argument in general. Congress, the President, the Government altogether, and many of the people who are politically educated understand the idea that a country that cannot hold itself together will ultimately fail and fall apart. Under this idea, creating a dispute, especially one that could start the removal of a president, between the Congress and the President (or in other words two branches of our government) is not a good idea theoretically. As a result, none of these violations have led to the impeachment, conviction, etc of the leader in power at the time, and hence, many including I consider this resolution highly ineffective, more as a bad attempt at a scare tactic than any sort of enforced law. In addition, the siding of politics plays a role as well. Unless they’re in immediate danger, a politician (as anyone with power) wished above all to keep their position. The impeachment of a President aligning with their party is not a smart idea for this and as a result this tends to discourage the legal processing of these issues and violations as well.
How does this apply to our current circumstances?
Who do we have strife with more than anybody currently? North Korea. With a landmass approximately the size of Pennsylvania and a country which is starving, Kim has a lot less power than people generally see (if you disregard his nuclear policies, the main issue in waging a war against him). Under these circumstances, Trump (if provoked) could declare war on North Korea and pursue its complete destruction if necessary, within 60 days of course. Two important current circumstances come into play here however.
The first is the civil unrest we are currently experiencing. Considering the already strong push at impeachment which can’t get its footing, Trump would have to be extremely careful in the violation of this resolution. While none of the previous violators have ever gotten in serious legal trouble for it, they didn’t have the country split (with half more focused on impeachment than work or any societal contribution) under them. Should he break the bounds of this resolution, if used, Trump could find himself in a viable and very possible predicament of being impeached.
The second is based around our allies. Many of us who are politically connected understand that one driving cause for diplomacy is the safety of our allied countries (specifically South Korea and Japan) along with our state in the international community based on our actions. However it is also important to understand that due to these circumstances we have already passed on a variety of chances to make our move: A missile being shot over Japan twice, several near its waters, nuclear testing, threats of destruction, and so many others. What then becomes the issue is not when we can (if we decide to) but whether we should and if we will, and that isn’t a decision that will be up to us if the resolution is used, but rather to North Korea and Trump.
While the War Powers issue may be a controversial one, the resolution made clearly is one of the few political instances in which an agreement that suits both sides fairly evenly. What becomes even more important is to understand how it plays a role in modern politics, both nationally and internationally, and understanding how it affects the ways in which the world interacts with each other today as well as how it may in the near future.