Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Going to War Shouldn't Be a One-Man Decision

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Going to War Shouldn't Be a One-Man Decision

Article excerpt

Haiti poses many difficult questions for President Bill Clinton. None is more prickly - or more important to the integrity of his presidency - than whether to ask Congress for authority to launch an invasion.

Clinton told a press conference last month that he did not have to ask. "Like my predecessors of both parties," he said, "I have not agreed that I was constitutionally mandated" to have congressional approval.

It is easy to understand why this president, like others, would prefer to act on his own. Going to Congress would lead to a trying debate, with the outcome uncertain.

But a unilateral decision to invade would offend the Constitution in a most profound sense. It would deprive the military operation of essential public legitimacy.

The framers of the Constitution well knew that giving Congress power over the decision to make war would produce messy debates. But they feared the danger of leaving so grave a decision to one person. As in other aspects of the Constitution, they thought efficiency was less important than safety.

Even Alexander Hamilton, the most executive-minded of the framers, agreed to the provision assigning to Congress the power to declare war. So did other leading figures at the Constitutional Convention, such as James Madison and James Wilson. Wilson said of war-making:

"It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large."

The delegates left it open to the president to use the armed forces, as they put it, to repel sudden attacks on the United States. But a deliberate choice of war was to be for Congress. A recent example of a deliberate choice of war was the Persian Gulf conflict. Over a period of months President George Bush sent hundreds of thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia. The U.N. Security Council authorized an attack on Iraq. There could be no presidential claim of a need for secrecy or surprise as a reason to bypass Congress.

Bush, however, said, "I have the constitutional authority, many attorneys having so advised me." In the end he did ask Congress for authority. …

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