Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Clinton Needs Approval of Congress on Haiti Presidents Violate It, but the Constitution Clearly Assigns Declaration of War to the Legislative Branch

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Clinton Needs Approval of Congress on Haiti Presidents Violate It, but the Constitution Clearly Assigns Declaration of War to the Legislative Branch

Article excerpt

ONCE again the United States stands on the precipice of war; this time with the Caribbean nation of Haiti. US military intervention in Haiti may be the best or even the only way to remove the coup leaders and "restore democracy." However, the decision to invade cannot and should not be made by President Clinton alone.

To do so would violate the specific circumstances enumerated by America's constitutional framers under which the president may unilaterally deploy US military forces abroad. In the Haitian case, there is no sudden attack to repel, nor is there an international emergency or crisis of immediate consequence to US citizens, property, or sovereignty. Hence, Mr. Clinton is obliged to ask Congress for either a declaration of war against Haiti or a joint resolution authorizing the use of military force before proceeding with an invasion of Haiti.

The framers of the republic appreciated the authority needed by the executive branch to repel sudden attacks and respond to international emergencies. George Washington's warning about entangling alliances notwithstanding, the framers knew necessity would occasionally require the executive to act unilaterally in defense of the nation.

But the framers were fearful of vesting the sole power to make war in either the Senate or the executive, and decided instead to give Congress - the House and Senate - the power to declare war. Their reasoning was clear, as Maj. Pierce Butler of South Carolina, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, explained in 1788: "It was at first proposed to vest the sole power of making peace or war in the Senate; but this was objected to as inimical to the genius of a republic, by destroying the necessary balance they were anxious to preserve. Some gentlemen were inclined to give this power to the president; but it was objected to, as throwing into his hands the influence of a monarch, having an opportunity of involving his country in war whenever he wished to promote her destruction."

Consequently, the convention delegates decided that Congress was the best place to safely lodge the power to "make war." Yet during subsequent deliberation in 1787, this language was changed to "declare war" as a concession to the likelihood that the president would, on occasion, be required to take military action without congressional authorization - to repel sudden attacks against the nation, in response to a crisis, or when Congress was not in session.

The framers expected such executive actions to be exceptional, not ordinary or standard practice. Decades of "gunboat diplomacy," however, have weakened the constraint once imposed by this expectation on unilateral presidential action. Indeed, most Americans, including Clinton, probably assume that the Constitution grants sweeping discretion to the president as commander in chief to commit American troops to battle without specific authorization from Congress.

This assumption is inaccurate and dangerous. America's framers believed the decision to wage war against another nation, even a much weaker one, was best undertaken by Congress, given its capacity for deliberation and direct linkage to the American people. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton favorably compared the war-making responsibilities of Congress to those of the British monarch: "{The authority} of the British king extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulation of fleets and armies - all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature. …

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