Barack Obama is clearly not the first president to ignore the framers’ intent regarding the executive’s war powers. In many ways Obama is merely building upon the framework of George W. Bush, whose many foreign interventions were based on, at best, faulty evidence, and even worse constitutional reasoning.
Believe it or not, it is not constitutional for Congress to officially hand over its war responsibilities to the president. This was the basis for Bush’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But even George W. “If You’re Not With Us You’re Against Us” Bush didn’t lead the way in trailblazing the path of presidential war powers. Harry Truman kicked it off with his “police action” in Korea. The reasoning back then was pretty much the same as it is today. If war was redefined as a “police action,” it wouldn’t have to be declared by Congress and the President could wage it on his say-so alone.
If you or I tried to redefine the law like that we’d end up in jail. But when a president does it we’re supposed to fall in line with a chorus of “Yes, sir.”
After Truman, the constitutional violations continued. The Vietnam War brought more than a decade of undeclared, and therefore illegal, war, supported and maintained by at least three administrations. It appears that the one thing all presidents can agree on is unlimited presidential discretion in determining who should be attacked.
When Congress launched a feeble attempt to rein in the president’s war-making ability with the 1973 War Powers Resolution, the language was so passive that subsequent presidents turned the legislation on its head and used it to argue for even more autonomy in foreign policy.
By the time the late 1990s rolled around, Presidents Bush and Clinton were committing troops to the Middle East, Somalia and Bosnia, all without following the clear constitutional guidelines for declaring war. The reasons for these wars don’t much matter, whether they be for noble or ignoble purposes, for humanitarianism, for oil or for distraction. What matters is that these presidents flagrantly ignored the law in their rush to arms.
Despite Alexander Hamilton’s promise that the president’s war-making powers “would be nominally the same with that of the King of Great Britain, but in substance much inferior to it,” presidents today ignore the limitations on their own authority to such an extent that they enjoy war-making powers that would have been the envy of the most despotic of British Kings.