By Eric Lieberman
The decision to go to war is the most consequential and serious choice a government ever has to make.
Recently, the United Kingdom’s House of Commons voted 397 to 223 in favor of bombing Syria, with the main purpose of combating the Islamic State (ISIS). More important than the decision is the fact that it was reached democratically, and that there was ample time for lawmakers to consider their position, with the debate lasting around 10 hours.
The United States should take note of this respect for the democratic process. Like Her Majesty’s Government, the US legislature should debate the pros and cons of military action, and not allow such a profound decision to be made by the president alone.
This is exactly what the Constitution intended. While there is legitimate debate about how to interpret other parts of our founding document, Article 1, Section 8 unquestionably gives the power to declare war to Congress.
Unfortunately, there have been many instances when this was not honored. So much so that in 1973 the War Powers Resolution was enacted to hone the law and reaffirm the appropriate checks and balances of legislative and executive power.
But this decree has failed. Aside from some minor protests from a handful of elected officials, the US government as a whole has utterly failed to uphold the law — so much so that the United States has not correctly declared war since the law was ratified.
This is despite an excess of opportunities. In reality, the United States has effectively been at war for 93 percent of its history, yet the last time the US government officially declared war was on December 8, 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Despite the need to quickly respond to the attack, this decision to enter World War II was made through the proper democratic procedures. It is reasonable to surmise that conscripted soldiers were more comfortable and more committed to engage in war knowing that the representatives they elected helped make this momentous decision.
After all, most of our founding fathers were determined to establish a government with limited executive powers, in order to escape the fundamental faults of authoritarian regimes — like the ability to unilaterally declare war.
In Federalist No. 69, Alexander Hamilton explained that “the president will have only the occasional command of such part of the militia … while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war.…”
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, James Madison noted that when South Carolina delegate Pierce Butler advocated that the president be granted the power to initiate a war, the fellow delegates “overwhelmingly rejected his proposal.”
Some modern politicians agree. As a senator, President Barack Obama himself asserted the importance of Congress possessing the power to declare war, stating that it was always better to “have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.”
Unfortunately, Obama has disregarded his own convictions since becoming president, beginning a number of military engagements, such as the intervention in Libya, without any congressional authority to do so.
During the 1940s, several legislators contended that President Harry Truman was trying to “supplant our Constitution with the United Nations Charter,” and were overall severely frustrated with the lack of discourse. These grievances were not unfounded, because congressmen were elected to make such determinations.
Would we as a country have engaged in a number of futile and, for the most part, meaningless military efforts, like the the Korean War (infamously dubbed the “Forgotten War”), if Congress was included in the nascent discussions?
We may never know.
But we can ensure that future military action complies with the Constitution by gaining the approval of the people’s elected representatives. This is the least we can do to ensure that our noble soldiers do not risk their lives in vain. If the United Kingdom can do it, so can we.
Eric Lieberman is a Young Voices Advocate, a public-policy researcher with an emphasis in technology and comparative politics, and a writer based in Washington, DC.