President Barack Obama’s speech on Wednesday night announcing U.S. military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria unsurprisingly did not include a request to Congress to approve military action. As Brookings scholar Marvin Kalb notes in his Brookings Institution Press book, The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed, American presidents have not asked for a formal declaration of war since 1941. He explains the history, and what has led to this new normal in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, in the excerpt below.
Since World War II, presidents have relied more on commitments, public and private, than they have on declarations of war, even though the U.S. Constitution declares rather unambiguously that Congress has the responsibility to “declare war.” Interestingly, only five times in American history has a president asked Congress for a declaration of war: the War of 1812, the Mexican- American War of 1846, the Spanish-American War of 1898, World War I in 1917, and World War II in 1941. During and since the cold war, no president has asked Congress for a declaration of war, although presidents have gotten different degrees of congressional support for wars, both through formal resolutions and through the appropriations process. War declarations now seem so old-fashioned, relics of an earlier era in world affairs, when, by the gentlemanly etiquette of the time, nations felt obliged to inform an enemy of an impending attack, when opposing armies stood on hilltops awaiting dawn’s early light for the start of battle. Think no further than Shakespeare’s classic rendition of the battle at Agincourt.
Now wars follow a new calculus—they operate in a new technological and strategic environment, forcing presidents to confront not only the possibility of surprise attack but modern challenges, such as cyber warfare. During the cold war, presidents explained their motivation by pointing to communist aggression; now, after 9/11, they point to the dangers of global terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen, and always, with genuine concern, they point to an expanding nuclear threat, which may in a short time be used to justify American military action against Iran if negotiations fail to reach agreement. Even though, since World War II, presidents have ordered American troops into wars all over the world—from Korea to Vietnam, Panama to Grenada, Lebanon to Bosnia, and, more recently, as America’s focus has turned to the turbulent Middle East, from Kuwait to Afghanistan, then to Iraq, and then back again to Afghanistan before treading lightly in Libya and Syria—they have not requested a declaration of war, and no one has been storming the White House demanding one.
Only once, in 1973, has Congress acted broadly to reassert its right to a major role in an American decision to go to war. That was when Congress, frustrated by the never-ending war in Vietnam, passed the War Powers Act over President Nixon’s strenuous objection. It limited American military action abroad to sixty or ninety days unless specifically extended and approved by Congress. But the legislation had little bite, in large part because Congress never wanted, or never had the political will, to challenge the president on matters of national security. When President Obama in 2011 used military power against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, he did not even notify Congress. A few in Congress mumbled, but did nothing.
Words have consequence. Spoken by a president, they can often become American policy, with or without congressional approval. When a president “commits” the United States to a controversial course of action, he may be setting the nation on the road to war or on a road to reconciliation. In matters of national security, his powers have become awesome—his word decisive. Who decides when we go to war? The president decides. As former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told me, it “all depends” on the president. “It’s his call.” Likewise, it is his decision when and whether, and under what conditions, to support a friendly nation.
As we learned in Vietnam and in the broader Middle East, a presidential commitment could lead to war, based on miscalculation, misjudgment, or mistrust. It could also lead to reconciliation. We live in a world of uncertainty, where even the word of a president is now questioned in wider circles of critical commentary. On domestic policy, Washington often resembles a political circus detached from reason and responsibility. But on foreign policy, when an international crisis erupts and some degree of global leadership is required, the word or commitment of an American president still represents the gold standard, even if the gold does not glitter as once it did.
Bill Finan from the Brookings Press contributed to this post.