Courtesy Reuters

War Powers Reconsidered

We live at a juncture where U.S. foreign policy is at higher risk than at any point since the end of the Vietnam War. Great and sometimes confused and countervailing interests are at stake in Nicaragua; indeed, across Central America. The Persian Gulf is a tinderbox, which could be engulfed in the flames of Islamic fundamentalism. And we have seen the Middle East’s coastal plain torn and fragmented to the point of anarchy in Lebanon.

Beirut, once the Paris of the Middle East, today gives full and paradoxical expression to all of the tensions that threaten to rip apart the structures of colliding civilizations. We sense, somehow, that society as we have known it since the Enlightenment is under seige by forces beyond our comprehension. There is no place on earth, whether along the East German border, the dividing line between North and South Korea, or even south of the line between Mexico and the United States, in which we do not sense uncertainty and the potential for violence. It is because we have reached this point, at which conflict threatens to overwhelm the comity that marks civilized society, that we must ensure that steps taken to protect ourselves and our institutions do not, in themselves, become violations of what we are and wish to continue to be.

The War Powers Resolution of 1973 remains one of the firmest supports of our determination that the American people will decide their own fate. I am grateful to have played a central role in the formulation of that resolution. It was the first legislation in our history to establish a statutory framework in which Congress and the president could function so as to give meaning to the constitutional authority over war.

In one sense it was—and is—a question of the paramountcy of the civilian over the military; the power of Congress to declare war, which is civilian, and the power of the president, as commander in chief, which is military.

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