When does war begin? Our Constitution requires we know, you know. It says Congress declares war and the president carries it out. So, for war to begin, you’d think Congress would say so. Hasn’t been that way for years. It’s more complex than that. Here are details.
Our founders envisioned us sitting on our continent, minding our business when someone would attack. Then, they reasoned Franklin Delano Roosevelt would appear before Congress for eight minutes, declare a day that would live in infamy, Congress would then act, and then the president would have a declaration of war to sign three hours after the speech.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work. But World War II was the only time such a quick and decisive declaration was proclaimed, even though our Constitution granted the power to declare war solely to Congress (Article I, Section 8). At the same time, it also granted to the president the responsibility of directing our military forces (Article II, Section 2). And that’s the origin of our kerfuffle.
The United States didn’t enter World War I until two years (1917) after it started, and then only after a yearlong push by Woodrow Wilson and other provocations.
The Korean conflict was never declared a “war” by any of the nations involved in the territorial struggle. Instead, is was officially a “United Nations peace action.”
The struggle over war powers between Congress and the president reached a peak with the Nixon administration’s reliance on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as authority for conducting the Vietnam War. In response, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution (or Act) in 1973, over Nixon’s veto, to make him and other presidents seek authorization before they act.
Since then, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq actions were not wars. At least not under the War Powers Resolution. Those were “Extended Military Engagements” with their operations covered by an “Authorized Use of Military Force” passed by Congress.
But even then, administrations are slippery.
In 2011, then-President Barack Obama’s State Department argued that authorization from Congress under the War Powers Resolution wasn’t required in Libya, as military leadership had been transferred to NATO and our involvement was limited. After all, the United States performed only 26 percent of all sorties, 75 percent of air refueling, 70 percent of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and contributed only 24 percent of the total aircraft used in the operation. Thus, the “hostility” didn’t fall within the meaning of the War Powers Resolution, they reasoned. The House of Representatives rebuked him over the issue.
In 2012-13, the CIA under President Obama began a covert program to arm and train rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad, following his use of chemical weapons on several occasions. Obama asked Congress for authorization to use military force in Syria, but Congress said no.
However, Obama and, later Trump, introduced ground forces for training purposes. In 2017, Trump launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat airbase in response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
Now the White House has notified Congress that it carried out a fatal drone strike against Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani. The House speaker and most other Democrats objected that the airstrike wasn’t authorized.
The Trump administration’s position is that the strike was carried out in accordance with the War Powers Resolution under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorist’s Resolution of 2001.
This, of course, is being currently debated.
The House of Representatives voted 224–194 on Jan. 9 to pass a new, nonbinding War Powers Resolution to limit the president’s ability to pursue military action against Iran without congressional consent. Unfortunately, even if signed into law, it won’t address the next situation. So, until we can pinpoint when war begins, we’ll be forever trying to corral administrations as defining that is as difficult as pinpointing when divorce begins.
For now, we must be careful who we elect as president. They have more power than we think.