Wartime Requires Political Bravery
I do not know the exact temperature, but Philadelphia must have been both hot and uncomfortable on Aug. 17, 1787, when the Constitutional Convention considered whether to change a draft which gave Congress the power to "make war" and insert congressional authority to "declare war."
Roger Sherman thought the change would give the president the power to repel an attack, but not start a conflict, thus giving him more power. Virginia's George Mason thought it would give the president less power, "clogging rather than facilitating war."
It was at that point in time that Pierce Butler, of South Carolina, wanted to scrap the whole thing and give all war powers to the president. Large legislatures were too slow and always taking a recess, Mr. Pinckney argued. We needed to have a swift response to attack, according to James Madison.
When the convention voted, only two things were clear: (1) The idea to give all war powers to the president was denounced as contrary to the theory of a republic; and (2) each for his own reason, none agreeing with the other but with North Carolina's William Blount agreeing with the majority, Article 1 Section 8, Clause 11 was approved, giving Congress the power to "declare war."
What can be derived from the Constitutional Convention and our history afterward - from the decision of John Adams in 1798 to make "quasi-war" on France to President George W. Bush's decision to engage in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan - is that war is not the sole province of the president or the Congress.
It is, as the Founding Fathers realized, a collaborative effort between the two. To the extent that the president goes to war without the agreement of Congress, the most important element of a democracy at war is compromised: public support.
Indeed, this was understood by almost every president who ordered our troops into battle. When President Johnson ordered our all-out war in Vietnam, he first went to Congress for full authorization. Before Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush went to war, they did the same.
For the latter two, success in Congress was by no means certain. But each one of these presidents knew that no democracy will stand for a long war that lacks support of the people whom Congress represents.
In 1973, with Vietnam collapsing under a wave of American public discontent, the War Powers Resolution was passed. It was not an act or law. The president would have vetoed that. It was simply a way for the Congress to assert the role of the houses of the people when the preservation of life and liberty require the sacrifice of death.
In short, in order to prosecute a war, we require of the president political bravery similar to the bravery of the men and women he sends into battle. In recent years, both Presidents Bush exhibited that bravery.
Neither one was very popular in the polls prior to the war. Yet each believed that the national security of the United States required an expeditionary force to secure the peace on foreign shores. Each worked with members of both parties, many of whom despised his domestic politics. Each persuaded his political enemies that the cause was just and the war was necessary, convincing them to place their country ahead of their political ideology.
Now Barack Obama has decided to take for himself the total power to make war. By placing our Navy and airmen into the anti-aircraft flak over Tripoli, he has refused to take the political risk that was within the character of both Bush presidents. He has risked the public consensus necessary for a democracy to pursue a foreign war.
When reading the Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, it is apparent that our Founding Fathers feared concentrated power. They were afraid that unchecked power would result in unnecessary or unpopular wars from which there was no exit strategy. As stated by Connecticut delegate Oliver Ellsworth that summer of 1787, "War is a simple and overt declaration." The making of peace, he argued, was "intricate" and difficult. Our Founding Fathers knew that it was easier to begin a war than end one. They were so concerned about war that they did not leave it to the whim of a president or the desire of a Congress. They expected their presidents to be as brave as their soldiers and seek approval of a reluctant population before sending their children to fight and die.
We are now engaged in a war in Libya, unapproved by the representatives of the people. President Obama is supposed to be our leader, but he does not possess the political courage to convince Congress that his cause is just and our security requires the risk of our national treasure.
His lack of statesmanship on this matter means that our enemies can exploit our disunity and can defeat our great nation by weakening our resolve to fight. This was exactly the fear well over two centuries past.
War by the army of a democracy without the declared support of the people is a recipe for defeat.
Robert M. Levy is chairman of the Moore County Republican party. Contact him at Law52@prodigy.net.
More like this story