David Adler: Only Congress possesses power to authorize war

August 29, 2013 

David Adler

Here we go again. Reports that the Obama administration is planning, without congressional authorization, a military strike against Syria represents a grim reminder of the fact that presidential usurpation of the war power, by Republican and Democratic presidents alike, has become a grotesque fixture in the life of America.

Executive aggrandizement of the power to initiate military hostilities, a virtually unbroken chain of constitutional violations from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, has been exacerbated by irresponsible editorials urging the president, not Congress, to punish the Syrian regime for its suspected use of chemical weapons against its own people.

If the United States is to unleash its military might against Syria, it is for Congress, not the president, to decide. Earlier this week it was reported that House Speaker John Boehner had not heard from the president on this matter.

Boehner should not wait to hear from President Obama what “his” decision on the use of force will be. The speaker should immediately send to Obama a letter reminding him that the War Clause of the Constitution (Art. 1, Sec. 8) grants to Congress the sole and exclusive authority to commence war, including lesser acts of military force.

If President Obama believes hostilities are warranted, he should make that recommendation to Congress. In sequence, Congress should engage in a solemn discussion and debate on the merits of initiating military hostilities. The president has no constitutional authority to make determinations on matters of war and peace. Without authorization from Congress, the president may not order the use of force.

For more than half a century, American presidents have claimed war powers not grounded in the Constitution. With few exceptions, members of Congress have acquiesced in the face of presidential usurpation of what is the most important decision-making authority Congress possesses: the power to risk the blood and treasure of the United States.

Congressional abdication of its responsibility to decide on this fundamental constitutional power is intolerable. Congressional representatives must require President Obama to come to Congress for authorization to use military force.

For those in Congress who claim to take the Constitution seriously, this is a critical test of their commitment to constitutional government and their oath of office. Partisan interests and party affiliations must be swept aside.

Congressional contemplation of the use of force is a grim responsibility thrust upon the first branch of government by the framers of the Constitution. To a man, they rejected the concept of a unilateral executive power to unleash “the Dogs of War.” Abdication of the war power, like abdication of the legislative power and the spending power, the framers believed, would lay waste to the principles of republicanism.

Much is at stake in the contemplation of the use of force — anytime, anywhere. But the stakes are particularly high in the case of Syria. It will be difficult for America to avoid further entanglement once it unleashes its military arsenal against the monstrous regime in Damascus.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who understood that the Constitution entrusts in Congress the authority to decide on matters of war and peace, and understood the ravages of war better than most, wondered why a president would want to make a unilateral decision to go to war when the twists and turns of warfare might lead to disaster. Why would a president want to assume that responsibility alone?

If President Obama won’t heed the Constitution, it is up to Congress to educate him.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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