The Politics of War Powers Cover

The Politics of War Powers

The Theory and History of Presidential Unilateralism

Sarah Burns

University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2019, 312 pages

Book Review published on: April 3, 2020

On 3 January 2020, a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, in Baghdad. Without clear Congressional approval, the Executive Branch targeted and killed a state actor in a foreign county. This unilateral decision highlights the ongoing national debate surrounding presidential war powers.

For any newcomers to this discussion, The Politics of War Powers: The Theory and History of Presidential Unilateralism by Sarah Burns, an assistant professor of political science at the Rochester Institute of Technology, provides a comprehensive historical review of this topic. The Politics of War Powers covers constitutional theory and explains the expansion of presidential war powers through seven historical cases. Burns argues that over time the fundamental question posed by policy makers in Washington has shifted from “should we make war” to “does the President have legal authority for military action?” Articulately and succinctly written, the author breaks down a complex topic, while weaving historical narrative with political theory.

War powers have been an issue since our nation’s founding. After the failure of the Articles of Confederation, the Founding Fathers realized the nation needed a stronger federal government. Article I, section 8, clause 11, also known as the War Powers Clause, entrusts Congress with the power to make war and peace. However, Congress’s power conflicts with the president’s duties as commander in chief to protect the country in accordance with article II, section 2. The Founding Fathers intended to cause a healthy struggle between the two branches and to check against naked aggression.

The book’s seven case studies highlight three critical progressions that expanded executive war power. First, presidents have continued to expand the power of the executive by evolving the legal methods to persuade Congress to approve their desired policies. For instance, President James Polk provoked the Mexican-American War by stationing troops in the contested area in southern Texas, gaining congressional approval once hostilities began. In another example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded Congress to adopt “Cash-Carry” and “Lend-Lease” bills to work around the Neutrality Acts of 1937 and 1939, respectively. In the case of Roosevelt, modern presidents followed his example and began to rely heavily on the legal arguments set forth by the newly created Office of Legal Counsel.

Second, during the Cold War, presidents needed to protect the country and the free world from the existential threat of Communism. America entered into both the Korean and Vietnam Wars without congressional declarations of war. For the first time, the protection and safety of the country continuously resided beyond the physical borders of the United States. Additionally, the rise of intergovernmental organizations such as the UN and NATO gave presidents additional avenues to influence Congress, and the public, to approve military activity. In reaction to the Vietnam War, Congress passed the War Power Resolution of 1973, ostensibly restricting the executive to a ninety-day window to employ military force before having to go to Congress.

Finally, during the Global War on Terrorism, presidents began to use military force in “preemptive” and “preventive” manners, as seen in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq. Instead of restricting executive power as intended, the 1973 resolution essentially expanded it, giving credence to the president to use military force as a fait accompli. Once troops were committed, Congress understandably lacked the political fortitude to cut off funding.

Although historically thorough, the book struggles to sufficiently explain how to fix the issue. Burns correctly defines the problem: Congress needs take back power from the Executive Branch. However, there needs to be a stronger conclusion with prescriptive answers for how the legislature should potentially rebalance. The author’s perspective on ideas pushed by constitutional lawyers and think tanks, such as repealing the War Powers Resolution or adding sunset provisions to all authorizations to use military force, would be justified and intriguing.

With minimal shortcomings, The Politics of War Powers is an excellent read for any service members interested in American politics or history. Specifically, military advisors who want to know the history of the American political system as it applies to the use of military force would benefit from reading this book. Finally, senior service colleges should consider incorporating it into their syllabi on civil-military relations or use of force.

Book Review written by: Capt. Lelan Namy, U.S. Army, Fort Carson, Colorado