Why Congress Must Reclaim Its War Powers

December 13, 2019

This week, The Washington Post published a bombshell report they are calling the “Afghanistan Papers”, reviewing thousands of internal government documents and private interviews relating to the war in Afghanistan. And it has exposed one of the most shameful political and military scandals in American history.

According to the documents uncovered by the Post, military and civilian leaders from the last three administrations have engaged in a massive conspiracy to mislead the American public about the reality in Afghanistan. While they consistently painted a rosy outlook to the public about our “success” and “progress” in that country, behind closed doors they knew otherwise. These officials knew the war was going badly and that America had little if anything to gain from it. And they deliberately hid the evidence from the American people.

It has been a gross abuse of power and military force, wasting trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. It is, unfortunately, a perfect example of why we ought to be so cautious about spending our precious economic and human resources to engage our country in war.

This is exactly why the Founders were so careful in designing the war powers process that they did.

After living under the tyranny of King George III of England, they knew that bad things happen when too few people exercise too much power. And they understood that nowhere is this more evident than in the power to declare war.

Under British rule, the King of England could send his country – and ours – into war, all by himself, regardless of whether it was in anyone else’s interest.

So the Founders made a dramatic break from this model when they established our republic. Instead of vesting this power in the executive branch, with the President or a single official, where it would be more likely to be abused, they placed it squarely in the legislative branch.

They then further sought to disperse this power within the branches of Congress: the branch where open and public debate would happen; and the branch most easily accountable to the people at regular intervals through elections.

As James Madison put it to Thomas Jefferson in a letter in 1798, “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.”

Unfortunately, over the past several decades we have deviated far from our constitutional framework.

From the North Korean war, to Vietnam, to Lebanon, to Somalia, and our various, ongoing entanglements in the Middle East, our presidents now routinely send our country to war unilaterally without congressional authorization.

What’s worse, Congress has consistently and deliberately chosen not do anything about it. Out of cowardice and self-interest, it has surrendered its constitutional responsibilities and willingly empowered the executive branch instead.

And the American people – and their faith in our institutions – have suffered as a result.

That is why it is of the utmost importance that Congress reclaims its rightful role in foreign policy and war-making. If we follow our constitutional framework, we can ensure that if we go to war it is truly in the interest of the American people. And if we don’t, debacles like the one in Afghanistan will only lead us further down a dangerous, unconstitutional, and immoral path.