At a Brookings event on June 20, 2013, veteran political journalist and Brookings Guest Scholar Marvin Kalb, author of The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed (Brookings Press, 2013), argued that presidents have “unbounded” powers over matters of national security.
Kalb began his remarks explaining the dangers of presidential control over military action and the impact that treaty commitments have on U.S. chances to avoid war. Although the United States has been involved in many conflicts throughout its history, it has only declared war five times formally through Congress: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II.
Kalb noted that the key reason why presidents do not go to Congress for formal declarations of war is because Congress has abrogated responsibilities in foreign policy decision-making to the executive. Furthermore, Congress has essentially become “irrelevant in conduct and execution of American foreign policy.” Kalb explained that Congress has imparted foreign policy decision-making to the executive out of “laziness and fear” because members focus their time on raising money, not war and peace.
Ever since WWII, Kalb said that “history has led us into conflicts that we don’t understand” because presidents do not seek approval from Congress for declarations of war. The country has reached a point now where “presidential power is so great, words out of his mouth become policy for the United States.” Kalb used the Syrian civil war and President Obama’s “red line” policy as an example of how a president’s words become strategy for the United States. Kalb argued that this presidential “flexibility” in foreign policy decision-making has repeatedly led the country into one misguided war to the next such as the Vietnam and Iraq wars. To nullify these poor decisions, Kalb believes that formal congressional declarations of war will help “trigger the appreciation for the gravity of war” and assist in “unifying the nation” behind a strategic military intervention, resulting in more positive outcomes for the United States.
He concluded his remarks by noting that declarations of war by Congress are “stark commitments,” and statements by the president of the United States must be thoroughly discussed to make well-informed decisions that will be in the best interest of the American people. Conflicts must be understood before the decision is made to send American troops to war, and presidents of the United States should converse with Congress before taking any military action.