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A Formal Declaration of War?

The WSJ reports that leading GOP seem to be seeking a formal declaration of war on Libya. Apparently, Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, stated:

If the Obama administration decides to impose a no-fly zone or take other significant military action in Libya, I believe it should first seek a congressional debate on a declaration of war.

I don't see the reason for a break from tradition on the president's War Powers, and can't imagine the benefit of further delay so that Congress may debate. Obama has done nothing for weeks - Congress had plenty of time to debate. Lugar professes a disingenuous congressional impotence in feigning an inability to take up deliberations prior to presidential invitation. I don't recall similar demands on Bush from the right, and see no reason for a WWII-style resolution for Libya (Europe would not follow suit, and America would appear to be setting the stage for a lengthy invasion - quite contrary to our intent).

Whether Obama has an interest in consulting Congress, however, is an interesting question. It would perhaps pacify Obama's left-wing, setting a new precedent of restraint for a constituency hungry for limits on executive power. It also allows Obama to diffuse the responsibility for war (and funding). Most interesting, it would align Obama with the Constitution - he may defer to the long-established War Powers executive privilege as well as the Constitution's allocation of war decisions to Congress. Having already authorized military options, it would be an act of humility following action. But the effect would likely be a circus in Congress, and the entire crisis would be resolved before Congress actually brought the issue to a vote.

Categories > Military

Discussions - 19 Comments

"I don't see the reason for a break from tradition on the president's War Powers, and can't imagine the benefit of further delay so that Congress may debate."

Huh. Where in the Constitution does the president have the power to declare war?

Cynical move by the GOP, though.


I can't tell if you're being satirical and rhetorical or honestly wondering aloud, so the answer is that there is no constitutionally vested power outside of the president's inherent executive powers. However, Congress has granted / delegated / recognized (depending on your view) executive war powers by legislation.


I actually really agree with you here Justin, I just don't buy the timming. Also if it is a cynical move by Lugar, what kind of cynical move? (I would suggest it is a timming move that can be scalled up or down.)

"and can't imagine the benefit of further delay so that Congress may debate."

Oh, I can...

We want Kadafi out, but we don't want the rebels winning by the force of their own arms, and being able to nationalize mostly european/italian infrastructure.

Help them too soon and it is bad, help them too late and you are stuck with Kadafi.

Hm. I'm uncomfortable with the fact that the perception now seems to be that it was the United Nations Security Council declaring war/authorizing military action and not our government.

ROB, bingo!

You got it.

Obama doesn't feel he needs Congressional authorization when he's just received authorization from a source he deems more legitimate, id est, the United Nations.

Justin missed the point of the exercise for Obama.

I support this move by Mr. Lugar, and not necessarily out of an antipathy to the War Powers Act.

I think for the next couple of wars/military actions, there is a need to have them expressly declared, so that everybody has ownership and that a majority of the nation is convinced we are doing the right thing for a good cause. No more being for something before being against it.

When Republican Rome went to war, Rome went in to win. So it should be with us. I think a formal declaration is the only way to get that kind of spirit with the country as it is right now. So I support this.

Horatius, you're wrong about Republican Rome. The Republic often went to war simply to check an opponent and not necessarily wipe him out, or "win," at least as we would understand "win."

In fact, it was Caesar's desire not simply to check Gaullic threats to Rome's northern frontier but to end them entirely that brought the Republic to crisis.

Rome's war strategies were often formulated by provincial governors, politicians of a season, who used a bit of war making as a way to fill their personal coffers and buff up their resume, so as to move one more rung up the Patrician "Cursus Honorum," {id est, the Roman "way of honour" }.

It's a shame that a recent post marking the Ides of March wandered off into comparing our Republic with ancient Rome's, instead of dealing with Caesar, his life and his time, which is an endlessly fascinating subject.

If we're going to send our soldiers into harm's way to fight in a war, why not meet the standard of a formal declaration of war? If the people's representatives in Congress cannot deliberate and decide to go to war, then the president should not be allowed to send troops in. We've allowed Congress to defer their prerogative over a declaration of war to the president and to the UN for far too long. The Republicans in the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles because Article X allowed an international body to decide when the U.S. would go to war. Perhaps a spark of that spirit is being revived . . .

Don't forget France!!! They have more chutzpah than the U.S. At least now maybe when one googles French Military Victories in google you will get more than "did you mean French Military defeats...

lol Cowgirl, I think the french are also more "interested" in outcomes in Lybia.

Dan, then please enlighten us on the period between the Second Punic War and 146 B.C. I sorry I wasn't more precise, but it that time period that was uppermost in mind.

It is a shame that a discussion on declarations of war is going to wander off on discussions of Ancient Rome....well, not really....

As an additinal comment, I offer, as Exhibit A for the defense, the phrase "a roman peace". Not "Roman Peace" as in Pax Romana, but peace as in the kind that Carthage enjoyed after the Third Punic War. Peace of the grave.

As far as Republican Rome during much of its time unifying Italy, I think Dan has a point. After the First Punic War, less so. Definitely not after the Second Punic.

Concerning the less salubrious effects of conquests on Roman Republican character post-Punic wars to Pharsalus, a topic covered by more knowledgeable hands than mine, I agree, and in fact offered that up as my contribution in that Ides of March post series. The populace grew to love winning. And would reward whomever would bring them such victories.

As a peace offering Dan, how about this--when Republican Rome went in for a war, it went in for a fight? Or to fight. I think that either is accurate enough, over enough of the time period in question. After all, there is a fundamental reason why a small village on the Tiber grew to overrun the entire Mediterranean, and it wasn't solely statecraft. It was the character of the people. They fought, and did not mind fighting.

And with that, I conclude.

The "Anonymous" post is mine. Apologies all around.

As I understand the legal history, a "declaration of war" was a legal technicality, signifying the creation of a formal state of war between two nations recognized under the laws of nations. During the founding era there was a difference between a formal declaration of war and sending troops into battle.

If memory serves, Jefferson never had a formal declaration of war when he attacked Tripoli. Congress did, however, authorize hostilities. But I don't recall when that happened, before or after President Jefferson sent ships.

My point was not that Rome would not destroy an enemy; that would be taking it too far. But that sometimes Rome declined to do so. Occasionally Rome simply told troublemakers to "go home." Marius did it to Mithradates, King of Pontus, {it should be noted there were at least 6 Kings with the name Mithradates, it was something of the traditional name}. Sulla did the same later. And Gaius Marius was very much a military man, vir militaris.

How Rome dealt with Jugurtha, King of the Numidians, was another case study in Rome not initially intending to destroy an enemy. Though ultimately Marius, Sulla and even Pompey went to war against the Numidians. It's also an example where provincial governors played important roles in the formulation and execution of Roman foreign policy.

But I'm paying attention to the Villanova v. George Mason game.

I'll expand the point later.

I do not know if we declared war on Tripoli, but Tripoli did declare war on us--by a custom that was the equivalent of a declaration for the time and region--which was to chop down the flagpole at your Consulate.

Flagpoles usually had to be obtained from a passing warship's extra spars, timber being somewhat at a premium along the North African coast. Hence, the idea was clear--it couldn't be replaced, and concepts of honor being what they were...

As far as what happened afterwards, I do know there was a agreement or "treaty" in either 1805 or 1806 (the Pasha wanted to neutralize the growing threat posed by his brother, whom he had usurped (if memory serves) and who was now being supported by a squad of Marines, mercenaries from Egyptians, and maybe some Tripolitan natives (after Derna, have to check my Whipple), and we wanted to free captives, including the crew of the frigate Philadelphia); and then a real treaty (imposed via the force of Decatur's squadron) after the War of 1812 that ended the problem once and for all.

The Pasha's brother ended up being abandoned.

But as far as declaration of war or lack thereof, I'm curious myself as to the debates of the times and the reasoning behind them, one way or the other. We definitely had one in 1812. But I don't know if we ever had one with Indian tribes, and we didn't have one in the Quasi-War. The lack of one in the Quasi-War makes sense, so does the lack of one for the myriad Indian wars. It is the Tripolitan one that is curious.

Maybe it had something to do with viewing action at sea as somehow less involved than action on land that required large land forces, thus less able to threaten liberty, and thus did not need the greater scrutiny and justification a declaration of war vote would have brought. In other words, a declaration of war might have been really saying that "we will have to raise an army, and armies are potential threats to liberty, so let's think about this..."

I think we no longer have an intuitive understanding of the early and antebellum Republic's fear of standing armies and possibilities for Cromwellian-type overthrows. It's something I have been trying to grasp for a while. After all, the Federal side of the nation was very hesitant to give ranks higher than major general during the Civil War (until Grant was made Lieutenant General), and the Navy had to make do with Flag Officers for a while.

I had been trying to think of the reason behind that reluctance to award rank for a while, and increasingly think instinctual fear of overthrow was the reason (after all, many of these people *were* classically trained, and this was our first really large army that could have actually imposed a dictatorship (see Lincoln's famous letter to Hooker)). They may also have put more emphasis on the word "Lieutenant" than we do today (in *lieu* of the *tenant*, i.e., office-holder, i.e. the General, i.e., the President). If I understand correctly, the colonial political heritage had often been that the Lieutenant Governor was as real an office holder as the Governor (when the Royal Governor was in England or in transit). So they may have had a different emphasis on the word than we do today. And Grant really didn't pose a political threat in 1864, so Congress may have had an easier time getting over whatever its objections had been to the higher rank. But they certainly had them.

(As yet another tangent, I think we forget how insecure Grant's position was in 1864. We know he eventually won. In 1864 that was not a given. I think that is why Meade stayed in command of the Army of the Potomac--so that Grant could have some breathing room for when that Army did not perform. Grant had come too close to being sidelined permanently on too many occasions to take his support for granted. And I think he got tired of it, when all the "proper people", such as McClellan, had been given such enormous passes on their blunders. Which is why I think he exploded at the Wilderness with the "double somersault on both sides" bit. In other words, "buck up, cupcakes, I'm better at this business than you are, but it is you guys who have always been held as what an Army officer should be about and I'm some loser, and I've had it." Which is why Meade got immediately effectively bypassed. But I digress.)

Back to fears of standing armies and the declaration of war Constitutional clause--it's just a theory that has popped in my head just now. Historical proof requires more cultural study of the time than I can afford.

When I was making my second reply, the Jurguthine war and wars against Pontus did pop up in my head, so I concede the point. If you fought Rome between 202 B.C. and 146 B.C. you were going to take a beating in some way, because Hannibal caravanning around Italy had so scarred them that it was like we treated Pearl Harbor for fifty years--"never again".

At other times in the history of the Roman Republic, I agree. Yes, *eventually* you would get beat, but maybe not immediately. Meaning maybe not for quite some time. I thus yield the field.

Please don't immediately destroy the rest of my cherished myths about the simple and plain pietas, virtus, and so forth of Republican Rome....wait a day or so before you start.

I absolutely love NLT commentors. Caesar, French chutzpah and the Villanova v. George Mason game, all in one post. Find comments of this quality anywhere else on the web - you'd be hard pressed to locate greater elocution, knowledge and reason.

Just mentioning. Thanks folks.


Would you really can an enumerated power of Congress and such a grave one as a declaration of war as a legal technicality? Is that not how we got the imperial presidency and lots of wars but no declaration of war in the last seventy years while the UN has decided for us in many instances?

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I previously criticized GOP complaints that Obama did not seek a formal declaration of war or permit congressional debate on the issue. However, I did not intend to address the propriety of Obama's having failed to seek any form of congressional... Read More

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