By Bonnie Kristian
On a recent visit to the Senate, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford was discussing the state of American intervention in Iraq and Syria when a senator asked why the United States is not bombing the Syrian government’s air force.
Well, Dunford replied, “We have not declared war on the Syrian regime, senator.” Sen. Roger Wicker followed up, inquiring whether a congressional declaration of war was necessary to get such a campaign underway. “I think it would take the president directing us to do that, senator,” Dunford answered. “The task [the president] has given us militarily is against ISIL, senator.”
In just a few lines, this brief exchange displayed the rampant irresponsibility with which Congress approaches its foreign policy duties today: For contrary Dunford’s implication, it is not legally the president’s job to declare war. And as for Sen. Wicker, well, if the gentleman from Mississippi wants to uphold his oath to “support and defend the Constitution,” he may need to give it a fresh read-through.
Indeed, our Constitution assigns the power to declare war to the legislative branch, but you’d never know it by watching the feckless Congresses of recent years. Instead of fulfilling their role as arbiter of American foreign policy, our supposed representatives have ceded all authority to the executive—and, as Dunford’s conversation reveals—have perhaps even forgotten the nature of their intended position in foreign affairs entirely.
The consequences of this abdication are many and grim, as it gives free rein (free reign, too) to an imperial White House, permitting our foreign policy to be conducted at the unchecked whim of single man.
“The modern presidency looks nothing like the modest, businesslike, law-governed executive the Framers envisioned,” as the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy has argued at The American Conservative, “and Congress and the Supreme Court show little inclination to put the president back in his proper constitutional place.” Nowhere is this more evident than in matters of war and peace, where this disregard for the rule of law has so far culminated in a president who offends the Constitutional vision of limited government at every turn.
And though a future president may be less inclined to take such advantage of congressional surrender, that hypothetical spurt of principle will not fundamentally change the institutional imbalance Congress has permitted to develop. One good president does not a broken system fix if the legislature is unwilling to reassert its constitutional authority.
In the meantime, without that balance of power, we find ourselves experiencing exactly the woes the Founders described when explaining their decision to assign foreign policy roles as they did: namely, our government goes to war too easily, without reasonable debate or assessment of the strategic interests and costs involved.
In practice, this means haphazard, unnecessary, and expensive interventions of exactly the sort leaders like George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson wished to avoid. Jefferson in particular was eloquent on the subject of the wasteful war-making an autonomous executive would produce.
“We have already given in example one effectual check to the Dog of war by transferring the power of letting him loose from the Executive to the Legislative body, from those who are to spend to those who are to pay,” he wrote to Madison in 1789. Jefferson then went on to boast that thanks to this wisdom America could “make a declaration against the validity of long-contracted debts” better than any other nation on earth, because “we do not owe a shilling which may not be paid with ease, principal and interest, within the time of our own lives.”
Now the picture is very different indeed, as America is burdened by $19 trillion (and rapidly counting) in national debt, at least a quarter of which was accumulated by the imperial presidency’s unaccountable loosing of the dog of war. It is long past time Congress busied itself getting him back on the constitutional leash.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at the Defense Priorities. She is a contributing writer at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This article was originally published by Conservative Review on May 17, 2016. Read more HERE.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.