Presidential Wars

Constitutional Diplomacy

by Michael J. Glennon
Princeton University Press, 353 pp., $14.95 (paper)


At Princeton University on May 10, President Bush made an important pronouncement which received little attention. He talked about the presidency, Congress, and the Constitution. He particularly touched on the role of the president in foreign policy, especially as it may lead to war.

We have just been through a war for which Congress voted at almost the last moment. Now, however, Bush said that he had an “inherent right” to use the UN resolution to take the country into the war, without congressional authorization. The passage in which he made this claim holds the key to what Congress and the country may expect from him in similar circumstances:

This does not mean that the Executive may conduct foreign business in a vacuum. I have great respect for Congress, and I prefer to work cooperatively with it wherever possible.

Though I felt after studying the question that I had the inherent power to commit our forces to battle after the UN resolution, I solicited congressional support before committing our forces to the Gulf war. So, while a President bears special foreign policy obligations, those obligations do not imply any liberty to keep Congress unnecessarily in the dark.

The italics are mine. They give away what Mr. Bush understands the real relationship with Congress to be. In effect everything depends on what the president chooses to do. He will decide where it is possible to work cooperatively with Congress, and he will decide whether it is necessary to keep Congress in the dark.

This extraordinarily devious passage was clearly composed with the greatest care to give with one hand and take away with the other. Behind it is an unstated but ever-present premise: foreign policy is the sole province of the president, even if it leads to war. Congress has a part to play only if the president, in his superior wisdom, permits it to play a role. He will not work with it if he thinks it is impossible to do so, and he will keep it in the dark if he thinks it necessary.

In another part of his speech Mr. Bush said that presidents “must preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” If so, it is necessary to ask: What is there in the Constitution that permits presidents to treat Congress so cavalierly? Should a president do anything he pleases in his relations with Congress, to confront it with accomplished facts and to manipulate public opinion before he shows his hand to Congress?

The issue here is far larger than Congress. A president who keeps Congress in the dark keeps the American people in the dark. If Congress is not trusted by a president, the people do not have a chance.

Since World War II, presidents have led the country into three major wars.1 Two of them, Korea and Vietnam, were disappointing or disastrous. It remains to be seen what the final verdict on the Gulf War will be. Whatever it is, such…

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