‘Presidents Of War’ Sounds The Alarm About Presidential Power

In his latest book, Michael Beschloss details the windup to eight wars — and the executive branch involvement in each.

With the exception of the Korean War, all of these wars received either a formal congressional declaration of war (the War of 1812; the Mexican-American War in 1846; the Spanish-American War in 1898; WWI in 1917; and WWII in 1941-42) or some form of congressional authorization (Civil War in 1861 and the Vietnam War in 1964).

In Presidents of War, Beschloss sounds the alarm about the president’s power to drag the nation into war. Yet a more pressing danger and indictment of presidential power may be the “little wars” and military interventions not authorized by Congress and not covered in this book.

Reading Beschloss’s well-crafted synopses, one is reminded how often major wars are started on a false pretext, a fabricated crisis or exaggerated hostility that is used to drum up congressional and public support. Beschloss clearly describes how easy it is for the United States to slip into war and how flimsy the separation of powers is — as a check on war-making or as a protection for civil liberties in war time. On the other hand, he shows how keeping the country out of war (like Thomas Jefferson did in his second term) takes real political skill.

The wars Beschloss details often take a heavy physical and emotional toll on the president. Beschloss provides both an institutional perspective on these wars and a personal account, giving readers a sense for the dynamics of war through presidential eyes.

The founders would have been surprised at the title of Beschloss’s book. Presidents were to have a limited role in decisions about going to war, taking the lead only when the nation faced a sudden attack. At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison, favored limited executive power and believed that war was the “true nurse of executive aggrandizement.” Yet Madison served as president during our first major war after independence.

What happened to Madison between the Constitutional Convention and the War of 1812 — how did one of America’s foremost constitutional architects for limited executive power preside over America’s first major war? Beschloss vividly paints a portrait of a reluctant, bumbling president meandering into war pressured by political circumstances and Henry Clay and the War Hawks. Indeed, by the time the war declaration had passed both houses (and was signed into law by the president), the British had — unbeknownst to Madison, Congress, or the public — already revoked the policy that had prodded the U.S. into war in the first place, making the war entirely avoidable.

Madison’s war experience may explain why this book is titled President of War and not Presidents at War. Even though some dubbed it Mr. Madison’s War, this was clearly not an example of a presidential war. Of all the wars covered in this book, the War of 1812 hued closest to the framers’ interpretation of the Constitution. It was congressionally directed and only dubbed Mr. Madison’s war in a sardonic way by federalists in New England who were critical of President Madison and the war effort. Yet even in the first war, Congress still demanded that the president initiate the process.

Presidents in the 21st century dominate the decision to go war, hardly even nodding to congressional war powers put forth in the Constitution. Beschloss drives home the point that every war has become a “presidential war.”

While Presidents of War provides excellent coverage of the eight major war episodes, smaller military interventions are missing from this book. Even before the War of 1812, there were several deployments of U.S. forces abroad.

Such “little wars” have cumulatively grown to make up the bulk of U.S. war-making. President Obama’s 2011 intervention in Libya and President Trump’s bombing of Syria in April 2018, not to mention the drone strikes under each administration, are not declared wars. Indeed, both presidents believed that they did not need to seek congressional approval. A full understanding of presidents of war would require attention to these limited military interventions, as well as the eight major conflicts studied by Beschloss.

Terri Bimes is assistant research director at the Institute of Governmental Studies and a political science lecturer at University of California Berkeley.

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