The American Legion Magazine

The War Powers Act requires consultation with Congress before sending troops into harm's way. In recent years, presidents have redefined, patronized or ignored the act altogether.

Preserving The War Powers Act

By Lee H. Hamilton

July 1999 Issue, Vol. 147, No. 1

HE BASIC TEST for judging any foreign policy decision is easy to state but hard to apply: Does it serve the American national interest?

During the Cold War, the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy was clear: the containment of communism. There was a broad agreement that the Soviet Union represented a dire threat to American security and values. Most Americans were willing to confront communism. Every foreign policy decision was viewed through this prism, and defining the national interest was not difficult.

Today, defining the national interest in places such as Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq or Somalia is much harder and determining how we should respond to such challenges is much more difficult. Nearly every government in the world wants to involve the United States in solving its problems. Yet not even the world's only superpower can solve every problem or address every tragedy. The American people will never support such a role. The president and Congress must decide which issues are vital enough to the U.S. national interest to invest time and resources and to risk the lives of young Americans.

War Powers. Congress and the president constantly debate these key issues of national interest and of when, where and how the United States should get involved overseas. Many international problems demand American leadership. Other problems require American partnership with friends and allies. But in almost all issues of war and peace, war powers and our Constitution come onto center stage.

Since Vietnam, deploying troops overseas has been a subject of hot debate between Congress and the executive branch. Congress set the stage for this battle when it enacted the War Powers Act in the mid-1970s.

The act simply sought to require consultation with Congress and to require congressional action when sending troops into harm's way. The act did not limit the role of the president as commander-in-chief, nor did it upset the delicate constitutional balance between the two political branches of government.

War-making powers are clearly divided under the Constitution. Congress has the power to declare war and to raise and support armed forces. The commander in chief leads armed forces. The Constitution provides Congress may circumscribe the president's authority to commit the armed forces to hostilities. The president's authority to protect the nation in an emergency may be an exception, but no clause of the Constitution generally empowers the president to make war without congressional approval. This legislation is consistent with the spirit of the Constitution despite the controversy it has engendered.

Experience suggests that the War Powers Act has led to reassessment of particular military operations and has placed restraints on military planners. It helped to force a reconsideration of U.S. policy toward Somalia. Congressional support strengthens public confidence in American foreign policy.

The extreme complexity of the modern world demands that Congress and the president pool their judgment and wisdom, now more than ever, before American armed forces are committed to combat. Lebanon is not Pearl Harbor. We may have a vital interest in preventing Iraqi control of Persian Gulf oil, but our interests in Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia are not vital. While there may be a good reason to send troops to Haiti, such a decision should not be left to one man.

Specific questions have been raised about section three of the act, which requires executive consultation with Congress before American armed forces are deployed. Whether it was President Carter at the time of the rescue mission in Iran, President Reagan at the time of the invasion of Grenada or President Clinton at the time of air strikes against Iraq, consultation with Congress has often been too little and too late.

Unfortunately, this section of the War Powers Act is not clear. What is consultation? When is it required? These questions, and others, are hard to answer. In the end if the will to consult is present in the executive branch, workable answers to them will be found. Few members of Congress would complain if the leadership of both parties in both houses were briefed in detail sometime before the date of an anticipated military action.

In many respects, the act has not worked well. As a practical matter, however, legislation has a strong impact on the decision-making process of the president. A decision to send troops to Haiti, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo or Somalia would provoke an intense debate. In that process, hearings have to be held. Editorials will be written. TV shows will air interviews. Constituents will write or e-mail. All this can be a healthy constraint in our system.

Explanation Needed. The president conducts foreign policy. He has the principal burden, however, of persuading Congress and the people about the threat to the national interest. There is no substitute for a president who can take his case to the people. The mission in Somalia was never well explained. While the reasons for bombing Iraq have been better articulated, the mission in Kosovo has not been well defined nor is there a clear exit strategy. These missions need to be defined and articulated again and again.

The War Powers Act remains a force for restraint on the gravest decision made by government - whether or not to go to war. It imposes on the president the necessity to stop, look and take prudent counsel before initiating a military operation. That is not asking too much in our system of checks and balances.

Copyright©1999 by The American Legion   Last Updated: June 6, 1999