December 8, 2011
Most people know that yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the devastating surprise attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor. That provoked a ferocious violent response that culminated in the obliteration of two Japanese cities less than four years later. But how many people are aware that today is the 70th anniversary of the last time the United States Congress exercised its constitutional power to declare war? President Franklin Roosevelt made a speech before a joint session of Congress, calling December 7, 1941 a "day of infamy," asking for and receiving a formal declaration of war.
Why does such a formality matter? Clause 11 of Section 8 of Article I of the U.S. states that Congress shall have the power
To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
I know it has become fashionable in contemporary America to minimize the literal meaning of the Constitution, but there is a very good reason why those words must be taken at face value, above all in this particular situation. Going to war is a profoundly solemn decision, and winning in a war usually requires a preponderance of national willpower. For example, our intervention in Korea was hamstrung by the limited objectives of the "police action" declared by President Truman. Likewise, in Vietnam, the United States simply did not have the broad commitment of its people to the cause, and LBJ ended up squandering vast human and material resources against an enemy that was so committed. In Desert Storm (1991) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003), the respective President Bushes took it upon themselves to make the final decision about war or peace, after securing "blank check" authorizations from Congress. In the latter instance, failure to secure an explicit national endorsement via a congressional declaration of war weakened national resolve, and when things started to go badly in 2004, divisions in our body politic began to grow.
Most recently, President Obama ordered U.S. jets to bomb targets in Libya earlier this year, as part of a mission that was aimed at removing a dictator (Muammar Qaddafi) from power. While there was ample justification for taking armed action against Libya, it would have been much better to "go by the book," declaring war. But the President did not even bother to fulfill the modest requirements of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, under which Congress must be notified about the reasons for any armed action within 48 hours, and any such action must be authorized by congressional vote within 60 days, or else the action must cease. The White House refused to comply with those clear requirements, with the excuse that the mission was merely to provide air cover to the rebels and did not constitute an actual war per se. It was a paper-thin, bogus rationale that undermined, once again, the constitutional norms upon which our republic was founded. It was one more step toward becoming an imperial form of government in which there are no effective limits on the exercise of power.
In sum, the idea that the president can invoke his power as commander in chief to initiate war at his own discretion is deeply subversive to our political system. If we don't stop that practice from being repeated in the future, our status as a free people will become increasingly doubtful. I hope that the anniversary of Pearl Harbor will serve to remind Americans of the principles for which our service men and women of generations past sacrificed their lives.