The Constitution imposes rules about how the United States is to enter a war, and the Trump administration has violated those rules in Syria.
THE PRESIDENT AND WAGING WAR
Under the Constitution, the Founders intentionally prohibited the Executive branch from having the power to unilaterally determine whether or not the country would engage in war. Few were more adamant about this than James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” who wrote:
“The constitution supposes, what the history of all governments demonstrates, that the executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the legislature.”
Thus, Congress has the power to determine if the country will wage offensive war and against whom. Once that decision is made by the Congress, the President is in charge of waging that war.
Madison emphasized this point again:
…The executive has no right, in any case to decide the question, whether there is or is not cause for declaring war.
In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.
The power in question is delegated to Congress in Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution:
[Congress shall have Power…] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
As I wrote in an early-2007 article, Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, on the other hand, refers to the President as the “commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States.” What the founders meant by this clause was once war was declared, it would then be the responsibility of the President, as the commander-in-chief, to direct the war.
Alexander Hamilton supported this when he said that the President, while lacking the power to declare war, would have “the direction of war when authorized.”
Thomas Jefferson stated this quite eloquently when, in 1801, he said that, as President, he was “unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.”
Thus, under the Constitution, the President, acting without a Congressional declaration of war, is authorized only to repel invasion and sudden attacks. Pre-emptive strikes, “humanitarian missions,” and other undeclared military expeditions are not powers delegated to the executive branch in the Constitution, and are, therefore, unlawful.
As an aside, it’s also important to note that no federal branch has the constitutional authority to transfer powers delegated to it to another branch. So, for example, if Congress would pass a resolution giving the President the power to make the final decision on whether or not the country will go to war, that would be a transfer of delegated power, and unconstitutional as well.
There simply is no debate. Congress, not the President, decides if the country will go to war.
IS IT A “WAR?”
Confronted with the Constitutional requirement that Congress is the federal branch that determines when the country goes to war, supporters of unilateral executive power will often take one of two paths to avoid following the Constitutional mandate that Congress declare the war before the Executive can take action.
1. Refer to the action as defensive.
This is the classic argument that “proves too much.” As James Madison pointed out, a constitutional argument is “triable by its consequences.” Here,