Balancing Act: War Power and Accountability

Many Americans believe that the growth of presidential war power relative to Congress is irreversible. Bruce Buchanan, government professor at The University of Texas at Austin and one of the nation’s leading presidential scholars, contests that view.

In his latest book, “Presidential Power and Accountability: Toward a Presidential Accountability System” (Taylor & Francis Inc., Aug. 2012), he proposes a plan that will allow presidents to deal with emergencies without permanently altering the constitutional balance of power in the process.

Buchanan recently answered questions about the steps necessary to restore balance and why “wars of choice” are the most important problem facing the balance of our presidential accountability system.

What is a “war of choice” and why do you consider it the most important problem facing the checks and balances system?

It’s a conflict initiated by a president against nations that haven’t attacked the United States. I think it’s the most important problem, because since Truman sent troops to Korea in order to repel the invasion of the South by the North — and did so without consulting Congress — that unilateral action has come to be seen as a precedent that has altered the constitutional balance of power, in effect, by taking away Congress’ power to authorize war. Now it’s up to the president, and everybody just accepts that.

You suggest the remedy is to turn to prospective rather than retrospective accountability. Can you explain?

That is for a special category of problem, the “war of choice” problem where we haven’t been attacked. There are certain kinds of crises like the Civil War or Pearl Harbor where presidents necessarily act without checking with anybody, and that should continue. I don’t contest that. Presidents have to be free to do whatever is necessary to preserve, protect and defend the country.

But in cases where it’s a “war of choice,” when the U.S. has not been attacked, there usually is time and no good reason not to convene a congressional proceeding that could impose prospective accountability by vetting or debating the president’s war policy before it is implemented.

You recommend policy trials as a vehicle to provide prospective accountability. What are they modeled after?

They’re modeled on the impeachment process described in the Constitution. That’s the model, but the big difference is that the president is absolutely not on trial; it’s the war policy.

It’s careful review of the merits; that’s the first advantage. The second advantage is — and this is why it’s not harmful to the president — the president can win this trial. If he does, then what he wins is likely to be a more durable brand of political and popular support even if the war news turns bad.

Every president from Truman to Johnson to the second Bush experienced the war news turning bad. What I’m suggesting is if the people and the Congress endorse going to war after a careful argument rather than a high-pressure selling job, then that’s a form of buy-in.

Suppose the president loses. Well, then he’s off the hook. He can’t be held accountable for whatever happens because he proposed what he thought was the right thing, and he lost. So it doesn’t necessarily hurt him politically at all, and it may — it certainly would have in the case of Truman, LBJ and George W. Bush — have helped them to dodge what turned out to be a very significant bullet.

Was there a potential for a full and fair prospective review in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq?

There wasn’t and here is why. Number one, we were close to 9/11, and there was an anxious and fearful mood within the country, which made the public not terribly skeptical about a president’s arguments that we ought to get involved.

Number two, we were close to a midterm election at that point. The public was supporting Bush in the 80-90 percent range — they were still scared from 9/11. Even people who would later come out in strong opposition to the war, such as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, who were members of the Senate, voted in favor of this resolution that Bush got through in that climate.

Third, the president made it clear; he is on record as having said “I don’t want to debate this with you. I just want your vote.” And he could say that because of the situation. Bottom line, there wasn’t going to be a full and fair hearing.

How did President Truman’s 1950 decision to send troops to Korea set a precedent?

When North Korea suddenly attacked South Korea, everybody thought it was the Soviet Union using a satellite to test the United States. What that meant was if Truman thought it was desirable, he could go forward on his own and take action because no one was going to oppose it.

The thing that should have been noticed (but wasn’t) in that Korea case was the fact that Truman could have avoided setting a bad precedent. He could have easily gotten Congress’ permission in plenty of time to take the action he took. He didn’t do that because there were certain things that Truman wanted to avoid.

For example, the communist Chinese had recently taken over China, and the Soviet Union had just developed an atomic bomb. Truman was being attacked by Republicans for letting that happen, and he was fearful that if he went to Congress for approval, he would have to endure more public flogging over those issues even though there was no question that his Korean plan would be approved.


Bruce BuchananBruce Buchanan is a professor in the Department of Government in the College of Liberal Arts. Buchanan specializes in presidential and American politics, American institutions, public policy and political behavior. His books include “The Presidential Experience,” “The Citizen’s Presidency,” “Electing a President” and “Presidential Campaign Quality.”


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