US Presidents and the Making of Foreign Policy: Tim Clancey Asks Whether American Presidents Have Exceeded Their Legitimate Powers

By Clancey, Tim | History Review, March 2006 | Go to article overview

US Presidents and the Making of Foreign Policy: Tim Clancey Asks Whether American Presidents Have Exceeded Their Legitimate Powers


Clancey, Tim, History Review


An Imperial President?

What do you think of George W. Bush? The British government's decision to follow the USA into Iraq in 2003 has in Britain led to a heightened level of interest in how the US President conducts his foreign policy. You will hardly find a stronger critique than Arthur Schlesinger Jnr's War and the American Presidency (2004). Schlesinger, former adviser to John E Kennedy in the 1960s and author of the classic study The Imperial Presidency in the 1970s, presents the Bush regime as the Imperial Presidency reborn, arguing that Bush more than any other US President (even Johnson or Nixon) has exceeded the powers intended for the presidency by the US Constitution, instead governing in the style of an emperor, launching wars at will, unrestrained by Congress or public opinion.

The notion of an 'imperial presidency' emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s when, on more than one occasion, the President made key foreign policy decisions, committing tens, even hundreds, of thousands of US troops, without regard to the views of Congress. By 1974, after Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, the notion of an arrogant, over-powerful presidency was in vogue. This reflected an increase in presidential control over foreign policy since the USA joined the Second World War in 1941, while the subsequent Cold War era is seen as a period where US presidents, helped by their own appointed secretaries of state and of defence, took more personal control over foreign policy than ever before. There is a lot of truth in this. However, the term 'imperial presidency' has been overused, trotted out every time US troops are deployed abroad, and there have been in reality more constraints on presidential decision-making than Schlesinger's concept suggests.

In defence of Bush we can note that, despite continuing violence in Iraq, he was re-elected in 2004 by a small but clear majority, defeating a serious Democrat challenge, and he was duly named Time magazine's Person of the Year for 2004, for, as they put it, 'sharpening the choices until they bled'. This reflects the conflict between the democratic desire for a 'constitutional presidency', held accountable by Congress, an opposition party and even the president's own conscience, and a perceived need for effective, forceful leadership in a war on terror. This conflict, in a slightly different form, was first evident in the very making of the US Constitution, and emerged on numerous occasions in the 20th century.

The Constitution and the Powers of the President

The US Declaration of Independence in 1776 is full of accusations against Britain's George III, all centred on his supposed abuse of power and despotic rule over the 13 American colonies. The new US Constitution, drafted in 1787, was criticised for its proposal for a strong central government, led by a president, as a potential return to a George Ill-style dictatorship. One Massachusetts senator, on the election of George Washington to the presidency, warned 'I fear that we may have exchanged George the Third for George the First.' Its supporters, however, recognised the need for a form of leadership that could react quickly to any foreign threat and act as a unifying force. They also pointed to the checks to presidential power included in the Constitution: the president having to apply for re-election every four years, and having to rely on the support of both the House of Representatives and the Senate (together known as Congress) in order to push through a programme of legislation.

The Constitution was explicit on presidential control over foreign policy. The President would be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, would negotiate treaties, nominate ambassadors and foreign policy advisers, and receive envoys from foreign governments. Congress, though, could confirm or reject presidential nominees, would have control over raising and financially supporting armies, and--very important to the Constitution's Founding Fathers--only with Congress's support could a treaty be ratified or a war declared. …

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