Des Moines Register 02-13-07

Des Moines Register
What are president's powers to wage a losing war?
Recent events have raised questions about the power of the president to initiate
and wage war in Iraq. The Constitution is both explicit and ambiguous about war
The founders, keenly aware of the political problems during the long George III
reign, clearly wanted war powers divided. They gave Congress (Article 1, section
8) the power to "declare war." With memories of the Revolution still fresh in their
memory, they ensured "unity of command," the first principle of war, by making
the president commander in chief (article 2, section 2).
As a result, it has been said that Congress declares war, but the president wages
it. Various presidents and congresses have been involved in situations where the
power to wage war was in question. A short summary of some of them:
George Washington: In 1793, Congress was ready to support the French as a
result of the French Revolution, but Washington was not and preferred neutrality.
So he expelled the French ambassador and finessed the situation by issuing the
Neutrality Proclamation. Further, in 1794, he and Alexander Hamilton led the
federal opposition to the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington personally commanded
a force of 13,000 men in western Pennsylvania to oppose farmers who refused to
pay tax on their whiskey. It was the first real test of federal authority, and it was
imposed with military force by the president.
Thomas Jefferson: The British attacked and boarded our ship, The Chesapeake.
Congress and the country were in a fever pitch for war. Jefferson, and later
James Madison, delayed Congress in different ways. War was averted until
James Polk: Polk had instructed Gen. Zachary Taylor that if the Mexican Army
crossed the Del Norte River, he should consider it an act of war and proceed
accordingly. It crossed, and we went to war. Mexican forces also had fired on
U.S. forces, and Polk also used that in his request to Congress for a declaration
of war.
Abraham Lincoln: At no time during the Civil War did Lincoln ever ask Congress
for a declaration of war. He initiated formal hostilities by declaring a naval
blockade of the Confederacy on April 19,1861. Lincoln steadily enlarged his war
powers. He closed post offices and ports, tried civilians in military courts and,
most famously, suspended the writ of habeas corpus. When Chief Justice Roger
Taney pronounced the suspension unconstitutional, Lincoln ignored him and
said, "I suppose I have any power necessary to subdue the enemy."
Franklin D. Roosevelt: Before the United States entered World War II, he
stretched his power many ways to help Great Britain After Pearl Harbor, he
asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan and also against Italy and
Germany after they first had declared war against us. He had the support of
Congress and the nation throughout the war.
Harry Truman: In June 1950, the Communist forces of North Korea crossed the
38th parallel and invaded South Korea. Truman immediately ordered U.S. forces
to support South Korea. Truman then went to the United Nations and received
authority to wage war under its mandate, which had been arranged in a treaty
between the United States and the United Nations. Still, it became and remained
known as "Truman's War."
Dwight Eisenhower: In August 1958, Eisenhower unilaterally announced that he
was sending 15,000 Marines to Lebanon in answer to a request from its
president. This was a direct result of diplomacy conducted by the president and
Robert Murphy, ambassador to Beirut. The Marines remained three months.
John F. Kennedy: He authorized the Bay of Pigs, the unsuccessful invasion of
Cuba. He also mobilized the armed forces and handled the Cuban Missile Crisis
with the Soviet Union, which had the potential of nuclear war. In 1962, he
introduced U.S. troops into Vietnam and started our long-term commitment there.
Lyndon Johnson: From 1963 to 1969, he continued the unsuccessful Kennedy
effort in Vietnam and enlarged it by more than 500,000 troops. This was
authorized by Congress under the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which we now know
was based on questionable intelligence.
Richard Nixon: He continued the unsuccessful war for five more years with
divided congressional support and mostly public opposition.
George H.W. Bush: After gaining approval by congressional resolution,
successfully fought the 60-day First Gulf War, with congressional support.
George W. Bush: Is fighting a four-year war in Iraq; also gained congressional
resolution, based on intelligence now know to be flawed.
Clearly the trend has been to increase the war powers of the president. The trend
stems from the growing complexity of war, the threat of massive destruction and
the intense compression of time involved in modern war.
Judgments about presidents under the threat of war are difficult and unclear
under our Constitution. One of the few references by the Supreme Court on this
question was that "Presidents have the power to wage war successfully."
So far, we have not improved much on that, nor do we have an answer to how
much power they have to wage war unsuccessfully. That is the question before
the nation.
ROY DALE VOORHEES of Ames is a professor emeritus of Iowa State
University and a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force.