Discussing War Powers

The Council on Foreign Relations issued a backgrounder on American civil-military relations. No, I’m sorry, that’s not what the backgrounder purports to be about, although it should. Robert McMahon wrote on the “different responsibilities” Congress and the President (it should still be an upper case “P” people) have in waging war but completely ignores some of the most important oversight powers of Congress.

With all due respect, some of the comments in the backgrounder are simply silly, conflating guidance with democratic control of military force. Let me tread into dangerous waters by suggesting much more learned people than I are, well, misleading on the facts.

  • Noah Feldman wrote

    The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare wars, fund them, and oversee the way they are fought. Yet the Constitution never says exactly how these powers are to be reconciled with the president’s authority as commander in chief. The Constitution surely must empower the president to fight wars effectively enough to win them.

    “Surely” surely implies that once the President gets the green light, he’s able to run as he pleases. As Charles Stevenson adroitly points out, 11 of the 18 enumerated Congressional powers in the Constitution deal with security. You don’t suppose the Founding Fathers were concerned a bit about a monolithic power, do you? A Jealous Eye indeed.

  • Professor Robert F. Turner’s comment that Congress “can say you can’t have money, but what they can’t do is say you can have money only if you fight a certain way. Bringing up troops from the rear is right at the core of the command function [of] presidential power.” On the first sentence, if Congress wanted to investigate the military, write another Goldwater-Nichols, or even, say, modify the Uniform Code of Military Justice, those would be wrong (whatever “wrong” is)? On the second half, let’s not confuse strategic commitment with reinforcements.
  • Susan Low Bloch said the framers of the constitution deliberately divided the war powers between the two branches to induce them to work together on such a vital issue. “I don’t know if they expected conflict, but they wanted coordination and cooperation and shared responsibility,” Bloch says. “I doubt that they wanted what we have right now.” That seems to be at odds with the idea of checks and balances and the overall concern the Founding Fathers had with maintaining a standing Army, let alone paying for a standing Navy.
  • I find myself agreeing with John Yoo that “Congress is too fractured, slow, and inflexible to micromanage military decisions (LAT) that depend on speed, secrecy, and force.” However, I agree less on his reasons than on the fact the President is to conduct war and Congress provides oversight.

American civil-military relations is quite different than British, French, German, or any other democracy’s. The US Armed Forces have two masters, the Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch. Getting into the relationship of the military in this political process, ignoring for a moment the military-industrial complex (a famous phrase that included “Congress” in Eisenhower’s original speech before editing), is ignored at the peril of ignoring reality. I know my reading list should be expanded, but maybe it should be sent to CFR?

(Cross-posted at the Smart Power blog.)

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