Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Founders were right, after all

The authors of the Constitution went through considerable effort to make sure the war-making power was vested in the legislative branch, rather than the executive branch, and for the first century and a half of the Republic that formulation held.
Unfortunately, in 1950 we started an experiment in the alternative when Harry Truman committed U.S. troops to a major war in Korea (styled a "police action" at the time) without a declaration of war by Congress. As a matter of fact, Congress has not declared a state of war since, although there's been no shortage of fighting in that time.
Now, human affairs are not subject to "proof" in the scientific sense as no controlled experiments being possible. But it's certainly reasonable to examine the evidence we have to determine whether certain polices are successful or not, and a period of nearly six decades seems more than adequate. It only took about that long to demonstrate, for example, that communism was a failed system.
In the first 160 years of the Republic we fought five foreign wars, with one draw and four clear wins. (War of 1812, Mexican-American, Spanish American, World War I and WWII.) This averages one war every 32 years and an 80 percent success rate. In other words, wars were infrequent and successful. This seems a generally desirable state of affairs I think everyone will agree. During that time the United States grew in power and influence from a relatively weak minor power into the most powerful single country on earth. This period I'll call the Congressional War Era
(I don't count the Revolution because it was prior to the adoption of the Constitution and also because it was a domestic war, which is an altogether different animal than a foreign war. For the same reason I leave off the Civil War, another domestic conflict that has its own sets of legal, moral and practical issues wholly different than the problems of foreign wars).
In the most recent 57 years of the Republic we've fought four major foreign wars (Korea, Vietnam, Gulf and Iraq/Afghanistan). Of those, one was a draw, one was a defeat and one a clear victory. The last is ongoing, but prospects for a clear victory are about nil. This averages a war every 14 years and a success rate of 25 percent. In other words, wars have been more than twice as frequent while being much less than half as successful. I think everyone can agree this is not a desirable state. I'll label this the Presidential War Era.
During both periods the executive branch engaged in minor military actions with mixed success. Because these were, by definition, minor actions however, the risks and payoffs were relatively low. Failures were expected and tolerated. While there were individual tragedies, of course, the country as a whole was largely unaffected by adventures in Cuba, Hawaii, the Philippines, Haiti, Panama, the Barbary coast, Libya, Lebanon, Grenada, etc.)
On the other hand, major foreign wars unavoidably bring great risks and the certain expenditure of national treasure in the form of lives and money.
The evidence is clear that the Congressional War system provides superior results to the Presidential War system. Why this is so will be addressed in a future post, but the empirical evidence is there for all to see.


  1. Step 1: Get the US out of the UN.

    The UN has replaced Congress as the official sanctioning body for warfare.

    Like that will happen.

  2. I think the UN is a symptom rather than a cause of this problem, but I agree that the UN has given the executive branch a certain amount of political cover for its actions as well as an alternative "authority" for waging war.
    Of course the U.N. does not actually provide the president "authority" to wage war without Congressional authorization. Declaring war is a specific power of Congress and one it cannot legally delegate (even if one were to accept an argument that US joining the UN created treaty obligations allowing the UN to commit the US to war.)
    At the very most, pushing it really far, the UN might possibly a supplemental authority that might have some standing under international law. But even here, it would be of a negative character. In other words, the US might launch a war that the UN would determine was "aggression" and illegal under international law, similar to the way it declared Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. This may or not be a problem, based on the situation. What the UN cannot do is make the US go to war or initiate the fighting. Only Congress can do that. Our current problem is too many ill-planned and poorly waged wars. not too few.
    No, the UN is not the cause of our problem. The real "Step 1" is that Congress needs to rein-in the executive branch and reassert its warmaking powers.

  3. You write, "...major foreign wars unavoidably bring great risks and the certain expenditure of national treasure in the form of lives and money."

    Precisely on account of those great risks, policymakers should consider the decision to go to war in a robust and thoughtful manner. To do so, they would need to identify the desired outcome, the feasibility of the outcome, likely costs/opportunity costs associated with the decision, scenarios that could arise and possible solutions for such contingencies, geopolitical and balance of power implications, etc. Perhaps because the process that leads to a Congressional declaration of war is more rigorous than one that grants Congressional authorization for a Presidential decision to go to war, the outcomes have, to date, proved better with what you call the "Congressional war system."