Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Presidential Wars Are Illegal Wars

Today the president assumes he can bypass Congress entirely and order unjustified attacks without even giving Congressional leaders advance notice.
trump pompeo bolton

Gene Healy makes the same point that the president does not get to make the decision to take the U.S. to war:

And while it’s nice that President Trump periodically steps back from the brink, it’s insane and appalling that we’ve staked so much on the instincts and whims of one eminently fallible human being. That is not the way it was supposed to work: “This system will not hurry us into war,” James Wilson told delegates to the Pennsylvania ratifying convention in 1787, “it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress, for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.”

From the Cold War through the Forever War on Terror, we’ve watched the emergence of a radically different regime, in which going to war is easy, frequent, and rarely debated.

Trump is not the first president to violate the Constitution by ordering illegal attacks on other states, but he has done it before and this week’s aborted attack is proof that he was prepared to do it again. The current impasse with Iran shows us how dangerous it is when the president presumes to have the right to initiate hostilities against another state. Things are actually much worse now than they were during the Cold War. A half-century ago, the president would need to exploit an incident to get a blank check from Congress before taking the U.S. into an unnecessary war. Today the president assumes he can bypass Congress entirely and order unjustified attacks without even giving Congressional leaders advance notice.

The executive’s willingness to drag the country into war hasn’t changed much over the years, but the legislative branch has abdicated its role in matters of war so often that its institutional muscles have atrophied and its habit of deferring to the president has become a crippling malady. There are some members of Congress that have been working for many years to change that, but they have to contend with hundreds of colleagues that would prefer to duck their responsibilities. Presidents have become accustomed to thinking that they can ignore Congress because so many members of Congress say and do nothing when the U.S. launches unnecessary wars without authorization. One of the more pernicious legacies of the Obama administration was Obama’s record of launching illegal wars. He normalized the idea that the president can start a war on his own, and for the most part Congress simply rolled over and accepted it. The debate over Yemen and war powers has started to change that, and the administration’s destructive Iran policy is helping to spur more senators to challenge the president’s overreaching, but Congress needs to do more to reassert their proper constitutional role in deciding on matters of war. Their message needs to be that presidential wars are illegal wars, and Congress won’t tolerate them any longer.

It’s also worth thinking about why the U.S. keeps ending up on the brink of new unnecessary wars. In recent years, it has happened because the president and his officials insist on making maximalist demands and imposing “maximum” pressure on other states. When U.S. policy seeks the other side’s unilateral disarmament and capitulation, it is bound to lead to the rejection of U.S. demands and resistance to the pressure campaign. The problem lies with the excessive and absurd nature of our government’s demands, which can only provoke defiance and opposition, and with our government’s complete unwillingness to compromise for the sake of a mutually beneficial agreement. When the U.S. expresses nothing but relentless hostility, requires other states to abandon what they consider to be essential, non-negotiable elements of their national security, threatens them with “obliteration” every now and then, and tries to strangle them into submission, failure and the heightened risk of conflict are more or less inevitable. If the president doesn’t want war, he has to give up on “maximum pressure.” If he refuses to give up “maximum pressure,” he will keep taking the U.S. to the edge of unnecessary wars and one of these days we may fall off the edge into a conflict that could have been easily avoided were it not for the administration’s brain-dead hawkishness.