Presidential Use of Force
When the framers of the Constitution constructed the executive branch of government, they envisioned a president with certain limited powers. Having delegated to the president a specific type of authority, the framers would probably be surprised to see that they had actually created a rather dynamic officer. The presidency is continually changing over time. That is, the power of the president has been both increased and decreased a various stages in history. Opportunites for change did not generally result from the characteristics of individual presidents, but rather came as a result of specific historic occurrences that impacted the nation as a whole. For example, the Civil War created a forum that expanded presidential power, whereas certain acts of Congress have contracted the president’s power. Although the framers of the Constitution may not have intended to create such an executive, the presidency of today has more power, greater responsibility, higher demands and expectations; and the US toady is the world’s military and economic superpower.
Presidential power when viewed from a constitutional perspective, is both specific and obscure; specific in that some elements of presidential power are clearly spelled out; obscure in that the limits and boundries of presidential power are either ill-defined or open to vast differences in interpretation. In an effort to understand presidential power, the Constitution is a starting point, but it provides few definitive answers. The Constitution, as it relates to the powers of the presiden, raises more questions than it answers.
As historical circumstances have changed, so too has the meaning or interpretation of the Constitution. The scope and meaning of the executive clause in Article II of the Constitution has changed to meet the needs of the times and wishes of strong presidents. The skeleton-like provisions of Article II have left the words open to definition and redefinition by courts and presidents. This skeleton-like wording leaves it up to an aggressive chief executive and a willing Supreme Court to shape the actual parameters of such powers. In effect, history has rewritten the Constitution. The words are flexible enough to mean different things in different situation. On the whole though, a more expansive view of presidential power has taken precedence over a more restrictive view. The history of the meaning of presidential power through the Constitution has been one of the expansion of power and the enlargement of the meaning of the words of the Constitution.
The numerous undeclared wars of the twentieth century also presented an avenue for Congress to supress the executive. The widespread disapproval of the Vietnam War was the last straw for American legislators. Congress felt the need to limit the president’s ability to engage in military conflicts with forgein lands without their consent. The War Powers Resolution, passed in 1973, created their desired limitations. This act required that any use of American troops in potentially hostile situations must be reported to Congress. In addition, the military action must stop within sixty days of the submission of the report, and that Congress can end the use of the military at any time by passing a concurrent resolution, which is not subject to a presidential veto (Edwards 480).
Since its passage, this Act has been overlooked on numerous occassions. Many military actions have occurred: the evacuations from Southeast Asia (1975), the rescue of the Mayaquez from Cambodia (1975), the Iran hostage rescue (1980), the invasion of Grenada (1983), and the Persian Gulf conflicts (1991 and 1998) (Edwards 480). Each of these instances went unreported to Congress, except for the Persian Gulf. Yet, Bush was criticized for waiting until the last minute to appear before Congress.
President Bush clearly fullfilled his constitutional obligations, for he sought and gained explicit congressional authorization to commit US forces to combat if Saddam Hussein failed to withdraw from Kuwait by the United Nations established deadline of January 15, 1991. However, because Bush waited until the last minute to request such approval; with 400,000 US troops poised to attack and the ultimatum only days away, Congress had to debate hurriedly. Moreover, Bush complied reluctantly with the constitutional process, insisting that he did not need congressional authorization and would act without it. He could not, however, ignore the pressure from leaders in both parties, the media, and public opinion to go to Congress. Privately fearing that a prolonged debate or unfavorable outcome would weaken the international coalition and play to Saddam Hussein’s advantage, Bush gambled that he could secure support for a war resolution. The slender majorities in Congress (52 -47 in the Senate and 250-183 in the House) (Milkis 361) effectively ended public debate, but also illustrate just how little support President Bush was enjoying.
The debate in the House of Representatives did not approach the drama of that in the Senate, where the vote was certain to be close. While critics of Bush’s policy reiterated the argument that he was rushing to war without allowing time to for sanctions to be effective, they complained time and again of an abuse of power and disregard for congressional authority to declare war. The Democrats contended that Cangress should act only after Bush had exhausted other alternatives and had come to it requesting approval to wage war. They said that, if Congress passed the Republicans’ war resolution, it would transfer the war-making decision to the president.
These criticisms of what many Democrats considered presidential arrogance were answered only indirectly by Bush’s supporters, who, like their colleagues in the House of Representatives, stressed the need for national unity in the face of Saddam Hussein’s aggression. Supporters also argued that its passage could help pressure Saddam to undertake a last-minute withdrawal from Kuwait.
In the end, it was the closest vote on a war resolution in American history. On January 12 both houses of Congress narrowly authorized the use of force. As the White House had calculated, a sufficient number of Democrats joined with virtually all Republicans to yield slender majorities. However close the vote, all members of Congress as well as the public now saw the issue as closed. In approving the legislation that Congress enacted authorizing the use of force in the Gulf, Bush said:
As I made clear to congressional leaders at the outset, my request
for congressional support did not, and my signing this resolution
does not, constitute any change in the long-standing positions of the
executive branch on either the President’s constitutional authority to
use the Armed Forces to defend vital US interestd or the constitutionality
of the War Powers Resolution. (Edwards 481)
On the evening on January 16, 1991, George Bush authorized the launching of Operation Desert Storm. Addressing the American public from the White House, Bush cast the war-just as Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson had before in similar situations-as essential to upholding international order. Aggression in the post-cold war era was considered no less a threat to American security than it had been when the Soviet Union or the Chinese People’s Republic was seen as benefitting from the advances of smaller communist countries.
Throughout the crisis, Bush was determined not to lead where others would not follow. Like Truman and Johnson before him, Bush claimed that, as commander in chief, he could unilaterally take the country to war. Unlike his predecessors, however, Bush confronted a Congress that was controlled by the opposition party and had strong reservations about the necessity for war. Bush could have handeled Congress more effectively. He might have been more forthcoming about his plans to enlarge the US forces and move to an offensive capability, and certainly he deserved criticism for the manner in which leaders were ultimately informed of that decision and for delaying the announcement of the troop increase until after the congressional elections.
Still, throughout the crisis, Bush involved Congress about as fully as could be expected and certainly as much as other presidents had in comparable circumstances. However frequent and open, presidential consultation with conional
The presidency is a complex , multidimensional, contradictory , paradoxical office. It is embedded in a system-the seperation of powers-that limits and frustrates the use of power. The office has been occupied by individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, possesing varied skills, motives, and ambitions. They served under drastically different conditions and circumstances. It should not then surprise us that the history of the presidency reflects the rise and fall of power.
The presidency has been shaped by varied individuals, operating within a dynamic system under changing cicumstances. Some presidents have been strong, others weak. Some eras demand change, others defy it. The presidency has been shaped by industrialization, by the Cold War, by American superpower status, by economic booms and busts, by increasing democratization, by the demands for capitalism, and by wars.
Just as the Constitution was designed with change in mind, the inherent flexibility of the presidency can be seen as a very important trait as it allows the office to change with the times. We have seen that desperate times have called for desperate measures when it comes to the powers of the executive. When the country has been in a crisis situation and drastic measures have been needed, it has been the executive who has responded. On the other hand, when the presidents have engaged in unpopular activities, the insitution of checks and balances has responded to reduce potentially harmful powers. It allowed for a dynamoc executive officer that had the power to accomoddate for the everchanging peaks and valleys of American history.