Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Congress and War: How the House and the Senate Can Reclaim Their Role

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Congress and War: How the House and the Senate Can Reclaim Their Role

Article excerpt

It is easy to conclude that the U.S. Congress is simply incapable of playing a constructive role in matters of war and peace. Paralyzed by gridlock, the hyperpartisan body regularly betrays its constitutional responsibility to act as a serious check on the executive branch, often preferring instead to launch ideological crusades aimed at scoring political points. Congress has spent thousands of hours on deeply partisan investigations of the murders of four U.S. officials and contractors in Benghazi, Libya, but refrained from making any decision on the military intervention that brought them to that chaotic city in the first place. Although the Obama administration began arming and training rebels in Syria over three years ago, neither chamber of Congress has held a debate over the U.S. policy in the civil war there. And two years after the administration started sending U.S. forces into Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State, or isis, Congress hasn't bothered to hold a vote on whether to authorize the use of force for the campaign.

It doesn't have to be this way, and indeed, it wasn't always. Most recently, from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, Congress weighed in responsibly on conflicts in Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East, and southern Africa. Sometimes, it blocked arguably misguided action on the part of the executive branch, while at other times, it partnered with it to improve outcomes. The congressional foreign affairs committees took steps to develop independent perspectives on U.S. policy, and party leaders assembled political coalitions to process clear, binding legislation on the use of force. When Congress encountered large, formally covert CIA paramilitary operations, it subjected them to the same open debate and legislative supervision as other war policies.

All these tools remain available today. The arrival of President Donald Trump could revive Congress' political will to use them. Trump lacks diplomatic experience, possesses ill-defined views on military intervention, and confronts a public disillusioned with recent engagements. It's the perfect time for congressional leaders to breathe new life into an essential component of American democracy.


The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, while assigning no such responsibility to the president. In terms of military authority, it refers only to the president's "executive Power" and position as "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy." As records from the 1787 Constitutional Convention show, the authors of the Constitution envisioned that the president would act alone only in emergencies, to repel sudden attacks. Overall, the document calls for the legislative and executive branches to share power, and when it comes to authorizing hostilities against foreign nations, it envisions Congress playing a major, if not dominant, role.

During the country's first century, practice largely conformed to this principle. To be sure, presidents sometimes acted alone to dispatch the military to deal with Native Americans, pirates, and smugglers. But these operations fell under the powers of the executive because they were motivated principally by a desire to protect U.S. citizens from enemies that were deemed to be nongovernmental groups, and they never lasted long. Things began to change after 1900, when presidents unilaterally dispatched forces to China, Central America, and the Caribbean for broader foreign policy objectives, such as fostering U.S. economic interests and preventing European countries from gaining footholds in the Western Hemisphere. Yet Congress remained a vital actor in foreign policy, debating and deciding on the United States' entry into World War I, passing extensive legislation on neutrality in the 1930s in a vain effort to avoid a new war, backing military aid to the United Kingdom under the lend-lease policy to fight Nazi Germany, and declaring war against Japan after it attacked Pearl Harbor. …

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