Issue in Focus
Feb 17 2017
One of the most important features of the United States Constitution is the sharing of war powers between Congress and the president. The Framers knew the Executive Branch, united under the direction of a single individual, would possess certain characteristics – “Decision, activity, secrecy, and despatch,” as Alexander Hamilton famously wrote – that are necessary for conducting successful wars and responding quickly to national-security emergencies. Likewise, they understood that the Legislative Branch’s unique attributes – its proximity to the people and its consensus-based policymaking process, for instance – are best suited for making decisions that involve long-term commitments and include significant changes to the United States’ relationship with a foreign power.
Accordingly, the Constitution gives the president the power to conduct war, while reserving for Congress the power to declare war. By sharing the powers to protect the lives and liberties of the American people, the Framers ensured that our military and diplomatic policies would be informed by a long-term vision of American interests – forged through the kind of open debate and patient deliberation that are the province of Congress – while remaining flexible enough to respond to threats as they arise.
The authors of our Constitution were not naïve, however. They fully expected that their elegant division of labor in the realm of foreign-policy and national-security would produce conflict between the Legislative and Executive branches just as often as it would result in cooperation. How could the commander-in-chief of the world’s strongest military force in the world not grow impatient with pace of decision-making in the world’s greatest deliberative body, and vice versa?
But over time, as the separation of powers became less important to Washington politicians than the separation of parties, Congress became less deliberative and more comfortable yielding to the Executive Branch in matters of domestic and foreign policy. And presidents of both parties have been all too happy to take advantage of Congress’s acquiescence by unilaterally committing American blood and treasure to foreign conflicts, even when there is no compelling case that such a conflict poses a direct threat to our national security.
One of the most common pretexts that recent presidents have used to try to defend their go-it-alone approach to military engagements is preventing a humanitarian crisis. This is how President Obama justified his administration’s decision to intervene in Libya, without any authorization or consent from Congress, and it could likely be how President Trump might justify using the United States military to establish safe zones for refugees in the Middle East, as he promised in last year’s campaign.
But if you think about it, this is no justification at all. Regardless of whether humanitarian concerns are at stake, Congress deserves to be involved in the decision to commit America’s military forces to a prolonged armed conflict with the potential for loss of life and significant alteration of America’s geopolitical relationships. And more importantly, the men and women of our armed services deserve to have their elected representatives in Congress seriously consider and debate the merits of these missions before they are called to undertake them.
That’s why I recently introduced the Military Humanitarian Operations Act, a bill that will require the President receive authorization from Congress before using the military for humanitarian purposes where conflict is likely.
We only need to look at President Obama’s failed 2011 venture into the Libyan civil war to understand why this legislation is needed. Obama and his national security team initiated military action in Libya ostensibly to forestall a humanitarian disaster, but after we helped to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi the situation only got worse, culminating in the death of four Americans in Benghazi in 2012, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, the first American ambassador killed in an attack in over 30 years. Libya is now a war-torn country riddled with ungovernable spaces where terrorist who threaten the United States are able to take root.
Congress should have debated the merits of using American forces in Libya, and stopped the president from doing so unilaterally. Had we been more prudent in the lead up to this engagement, the outcome would have been better for Americans and Libyans alike. With this legislation I hope we can take steps toward restoring the constitutional balance of power and better secure the freedoms of American citizens.