In Matters of War, Congress Is Worse Than Useless

Stephen Wertheim makes a good case that Congress needs to take up its responsibilities in matters of war:

Mr. Biden inherited this situation, but he need not perpetuate either the ongoing wars or the legal evasions that enable them. He could tell Congress this: It has six months to issue a formal declaration of the wars it wants to continue, or else the troops (and planes and drones) are coming home.

Were he to deliver such an ultimatum, Mr. Biden would, in a stroke, usher in a new era of U.S. foreign policy.

Illegal presidential warfare is the bane of representative government. We should not allow presidents to start and wage wars without Congressional approval. It not only makes a mockery of the ideas of self-government and democratic accountability, but it also produces terrible foreign policy outcomes on a regular basis. If the US is going to go to war, it should be our elected representatives in Congress that make that decision, and then they will have to answer for the decision they made. Unfortunately, the last twenty years have shown us that Congress is mostly useless in this area when it is not actually doing harm.

Congressional abdication on war powers has been a disaster for the United States over the last seventy years. In practice, Congress has either done nothing or it has served as a reliable rubber stamp whenever the president wants to initiate hostilities against another country. All that it usually takes to get Congress to pass authorizations for the use of military force is a few lies about a menacing foreign threat. Virtually everyone now sees that Congress was profoundly wrong to give Lyndon Johnson carte blanche to wage war in Southeast Asia, but at the time there were only two dissenting votes in one chamber. The 2002 Iraq AUMF is now widely seen to be a similarly colossal error, but it passed both houses by wide margins.

It’s true that presidents have become accustomed during the war on terror to start wars without so much as checking in with Congress, but if they bothered to ask do we think that Congress would turn them down? This is not a recent problem. Even when the US Congress formally declared war, the votes were never close. That isn’t because the case for war was so strong in every instance. It was because Congress was always so pathetically deferential and easily caught up in nationalist hysteria. Even when the Senate tried to rein in Woodrow Wilson’s preposterous intervention in Russia after it had begun, they could not pass the measure. It has always been politically safer to side with militarism and aggression, and that is what most politicians will do.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.