Debating War Powers During Divisive Times

January 16, 2020 Updated: January 19, 2020


The House of Representatives recently passed a resolution it says is aimed at reining in the president’s power to wage war against Iran. It did so on an almost completely partisan basis, with three Republicans voting in favor of the resolution and eight Democrats voting against it, on Jan. 9.

We will wait to see what action, if any, takes place in the Senate on a similar resolution introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

War, and the power to take us to war, is something we desperately need to discuss, but we’ve proven unable to do so amid our partisan divisions. I offer a modest proposal to help get us to think constitutionally and prudently about war powers, even in an environment as challenging as ours.

Here are the three basic problems we face today when trying to have a prudent and constitutionally grounded discussion about war powers.

First, presidents have taken so much control over foreign policy and war over the past century that most Americans have come to assume a bias in favor of presidential action is the constitutional norm and doesn’t need to be discussed.

Second, our political and pundit classes have let partisanship distort their constitutional arguments for generations. When we have Democratic presidents, such as Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, the aligned congressmen tend to embrace the strongest exertions of presidential power. When we have Republican presidents, Democrats switch back to become doves and Republicans cede congressional power to their president.

Third, we have the added challenge that we live in the age of Donald Trump—a time when every argument is taken to be (and often is) a partisan shot aimed at the president personally and where every challenge is met with an equally vociferous personal attack in return.

In this environment, it has proven impossible to have the kind of serious, constitutionally based discussion of war powers that our country needs. I would offer the following proposal.

Let’s embark upon a serious discussion of war powers. Let us begin by revisiting the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that’s now older than our new military recruits who will fight under it and was written for a profoundly different world.

That authorization was passed in the hazy days after the attacks of 9/11 and is still being used to justify war for an America and a world profoundly changed.

We now live in a world shaped by nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan and 17 years in Iraq. We now live in a world of a more aggressive Russia and China and after the rise and fall of ISIS. We now live in a world where fracking has made us much less dependent on oil from the Middle East. We now live in a world where Osama bin Laden is dead and our national debt has soared nearly beyond comprehension.

It’s time to revisit the AUMF and decide what our business is in Afghanistan and Iraq and across the Middle East, and how we can best use our resources in the world of the 2020s.

Let’s also embark upon a serious reading of our Constitution and study the war powers laid out by our Founding Fathers. Most Americans would be surprised by what they’d find there and what our founders had to say about questions of war and peace.

In our current divisively partisan environment, there’s only one way to conduct such a national discussion. Rather than the House Democrats passing resolutions directly aimed at the current president and in the immediate aftermath of a major military action, let’s look dispassionately to the future. Let’s talk about principles rather than personalities. Let’s focus on setting rules for the future rather than settling the scores of the moment.

To have such a mature discussion about the power to take the United States to war and our place in the world, members of Congress and the media will have to conduct themselves as if they were above the immediate political fray.

They will need to divorce this important discussion from the divisiveness that comes with any challenge to the current administration or current policy. They will need to debate and pass resolutions to set rules for the unknown presidents to come in 2021 (and beyond), not the current office-holder during this term. They will all need to carefully avoid the temptations to partisan warfare and short-term victories.

The American founders warned us of the problems political parties would bring to the American constitutional order. We didn’t heed those warnings and have to operate within the partisan world we live in.

Since we don’t seem able to discuss such important issues as adults to affect the moment we are in, let’s at least take up responsibility for the future, and calmly and deliberately settle on rules of war and our engagement with the world, and a balance of power that will operate for all presidents and Congresses in the future—whether they are of our party or any other.

Such a debate is what our founders had as they looked to the future and debated on principle, as divorced from personality and partisanship as they could get. Let’s pause the partisan battles of 2020 and conduct a national discussion that’s worthy of our inheritance and that will set neutral rules to bind and guide our political leaders to come.

Gary L. Gregg is director of the McConnell Center and host of the great books podcast Vital Remnants.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.