Editorial September 19, 2014


Guest Editorial

The President and the Congress Should Work Together on Military Intervention

By Lee H. Hamilton

“Our process for deciding to use force, however, hasn’t caught up with these dangerous times.”



In his speech last week outlining his plans to use military force against the jihadists of the Islamic State, President Obama gave Congress only passing mention. “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL,” he said. “But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together.”

He’s right, of course. But that’s not the half of it.

We live in troubled times, and over the last decade or two our military has been deeply involved somewhere in the world: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Syria… It’s a long list that will only grow longer as we’re called upon to use force in the future.

Our process for deciding to use force, however, hasn’t caught up with these dangerous times. It has been decades since Congress asserted any meaningful role — pretty much everyone in the country, including most members of Congress, consider military intervention to be the President’s prerogative. Congress has been far too deferential: its members prefer to avoid a potentially difficult political vote, let the President take the lead, and then criticize him if he was wrong.

At the moment, much of the debate in the press and in Washington about the President’s intentions revolves around the legal justifications, which I find slightly amusing. The fact is that presidents always find the legal authority to take whatever action they believe is in the country’s best interest, and they have plenty of cards in their deck: self-defense, national security, protecting Americans, and their constitutional role as commander in chief.

Indeed, there are occasions when the President must act alone. If we’ve been attacked or hostilities are imminent or some emergency presents itself for which force is the only response, we’d expect the President to respond effectively.

But there are powerful political reasons for making the decision to use force abroad a joint one with Congress in all but emergencies.

When our nation must deal with controversial, complicated questions, there is great value to making the President articulate his analysis of the situation and the reasons for his decisions, and to test that thinking beyond close advisors who naturally tend to support him. The best place to do so is in Congress, where fresh eyes and an independent point of view will produce tough questions. Invariably, the result is a refined White House policy and a better understanding of it by the American people.

This is unequivocally what Americans want. Even now, as a large majority of Americans support military action against ISIS, they also want Congress to weigh in, with more than 70 percent in a recent CNN poll believing President Obama should seek Congress’s backing for military strikes.

This may be because Americans understand innately that military action supported by both the President and Congress carries more legitimacy at home and more conviction abroad. Internal debate on foreign policy unsettles our allies, who begin to doubt the sustainability of our chosen course. The U.S. is in a far stronger position before the world if it is clear that the branches of government are unified and that we are speaking with one voice as a nation.

Though my chief concern is with the politics of authorizing force, there is one legal argument I find paramount. It is common wisdom that our Constitution is ambiguous on this subject, since it makes the President the commander in chief, yet gives Congress the ability to declare war. In a sense, though, the Constitution’s message is anything but ambiguous: by giving a role to each branch, it clearly considers the use of force to be a shared decision.

This imposes a responsibility on Congress. Our system is built on the notion that Congress cannot be a bystander when it comes to the grave decision to use our military abroad. It, too, needs to take ownership of decisions to use force, for the good of the American people’s understanding and acceptance of the issues at stake, and for the benefit of the nation’s profile abroad.

But Congress needs to assert this role, not hide behind the expediency of letting someone else make the decision. And the President should embrace it.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Senate Stories

Truman Investigates Defense

No senator ever gained greater political benefits from chairing a special investigating committee than did Missouri’s Harry S. Truman.

In 1940, as World War II tightened its grip on Europe, Congress prepared for eventual U.S. involvement by appropriating $10 billion in defense contracts. Early in 1941, stories of widespread contractor mismanagement reached Senator Truman. In typical fashion, he decided to go take a look. During his 10,000-mile tour of military bases, he discovered that contractors were being paid a fixed profit no matter how inefficient their operations proved to be. He also found that a handful of corporations headquartered in the East were receiving a disproportionately greater share of the contracts.



Convinced that waste and corruption were strangling the nation’s efforts to mobilize itself for the war in Europe, Truman conceived the idea for a special Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. Senior military officials opposed the idea, recalling the Civil War-era problems that the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War created for President Lincoln. Robert E. Lee had once joked that he considered the joint committee’s harassment of Union commanders to be worth at least two Confederate divisions. Truman had no intention of allowing that earlier committee to serve as his model.

Congressional leaders advised President Franklin Roosevelt that it would be better for such an inquiry to be in Truman’s sympathetic hands than to let it fall to those who might use it as a way of attacking his administration. They also assured the president that the “Truman Committee” would not be able to cause much trouble with a budget of only $15,000 to investigate billions in defense spending.

By unanimous consent on March 1, 1941, the Senate created what proved to be one of the most productive investigating committees in its entire history.

During the three years of Truman’s chairmanship, the committee held hundreds of hearings, traveled thousands of miles to conduct field inspections, and saved millions of dollars in cost overruns. Earning nearly universal respect for his thoroughness and determination, Truman erased his earlier public image as an errand-runner for Kansas City politicos. Along the way, he developed working experience with business, labor, agriculture, and executive branch agencies that would serve him well in later years. In 1944, when Democratic party leaders sought a replacement for controversial Vice President Henry Wallace, they settled on Truman, thereby setting his course directly to the White House.

Reference Items:

Riddle, Donald H.  The Truman Committee.  New Brunswick, N.J.:  Rutgers University Press, 1964.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., and Roger Bruns, eds.  Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792-1974.  New York:  Chelsea House Publishers, 1975.