The framers of the Constitution attempted to balance the power of the President as commander-in-chief with that of Congress, the representatives of the People.
Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution gives to the Executive Branch the command of the nation’s armed forces, while Article I, Section 8 gives to the Legislative Branch the power to decide when the United States goes to war.
Presidential candidate, Bob Barr has taken a strong stand in support of the Constitution in a recent post on his website:
“Former Secretaries of State James Baker and Warren Christopher have proposed a new statute to encourage the president and Congress to cooperate in going to war. But the Constitution already sets forth a clear rule: Congress, and only Congress, is tasked with declaring war,” explains Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party presidential candidate. “Absent exigent circumstances, like defending against a surprise attack, only Congress has the authority to take America into a conflict.”
When crafting the Constitution, the founders weighed the individual will of the Executive against the deliberative function of the Legislature, whose constituents would bear the full costs of any war.
Thus, the framers deliberately separated the powers of declaring and waging war; they confined these powers in such a way so as to thwart the tyranny of kings.
Despite being known as one of the greatest champions of centralized power of the times, even Alexander Hamilton felt that the President must generally bow to Congressional directions in times of peace and also in times of war. He stated this clearly in Federalist #69:
“The President is to be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States. In this respect, his authority would be nominally the same with that of the king of Great Britain, but in substance much inferior to it. It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces.; while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies – all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature.”
Our nation’s founders were far from perfect, and at times, inconsistent and unjust; but, on the powers of war, they were unwavering, and their principles were sound.
Barr again shines in his recognition of the separation of war-declaring vs war-making powers:
“presidents must acknowledge that being military commander-in-chief does not entitle them to take the nation into war. Rather, they are to fight only conflicts authorized by Congress,” Barr observes. “At the same time, Congresses must be willing to confront tough issues, rather than leave them for the president. Legislators have no higher responsibility under the Constitution and to the voters than to decide when Americans must fight abroad.”
One obvious reason for dividing the war powers was to prevent such massive powers from being placed in the hands of one person, the President.
The framers understood that, throughout history, rulers of nations worldwide had begun wars strictly on the basis of international politics or personal desires.
They clearly understood that rulers would often get the urge to remove foreign public officials, or dictate the policies of foreign nations, and that such urges are dangerous to liberty, no matter what the reason.
The reason for entrusting the Legislature with the power to declare war was to ensure that the People would be involved in the decision as much as was physically possible.
What the Framers did not imagine was a weak and ineffectual Congress that failed to claim its rightful authority in deciding when the nation would go to war, or a power-hungry President that wouldn’t refuse an extra-constitutional transfer of such power from Congress.
By rejecting the advice and the rules laid down by the founders and early Presidents, our recent leaders have gone so far astray from warnings against entangling alliances, that the founders would hardly recognize the government they created.
Policing the world and “spreading democracy” is not our calling. Additionally, no such action is permitted by the Constitution.
Michael Boldin [send him email] is the founder of the Tenth Amendment Center
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