By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey
15 January 2020 in the Wall Street Journal
House Democrats, joined by a few Republicans, responded to the killing of Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani by questioning the president’s authority to order that strike. But the resolution they passed last week makes a mockery of Congress’s own powers. It purportedly “directs the President to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran or any part of its government or military” unless Congress authorizes the use of force or an Iranian attack on the U.S. is “imminent.” But it’s styled as a nonbinding resolution. That means it doesn’t need Senate approval, but it also makes no pretense of having the force of law.
Which is just as well. Congress cannot limit the president’s constitutional authority to wage war in the way it pretends to here.
The resolution purports to restrict the president’s power to an even greater extent than the 1973 War Powers Resolution. The latter was enacted over President Richard Nixon’s veto, and every president since has regarded it as unconstitutional. It demands that the White House notify Congress anytime U.S. forces are introduced into hostilities abroad, then either obtain congressional authorization or withdraw troops within 90 days. The new resolution applies to all forms of military power, including drones and missiles, and claims to prohibit them effective immediately.
It’s true that the Constitution assigns Congress the power “to declare war.” Yet even in the 18th century, a declaration of war wasn’t required to create a state of armed conflict, governed by the laws of war. Today, such a declaration has to do with how citizens and property from belligerent and neutral states are treated, rather than the actual use of force. The last time Congress formally declared war was in 1942. Since World War II, lawmakers have approved U.S. military actions by other means, from the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed President Lyndon B. Johnson to expand U.S. involvement in Vietnam, to the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.
The power to declare war is different from the power to make war, which belongs to the president in his role as “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” There are few constraints on that power when the president is defending Americans, civilian or military, against armed attack.
True, the Framers didn’t grant the president power to initiate hostilities at his pleasure. They gave Congress, not the president, the authority to raise and support armies, to create a navy, and to make rules and regulations for their governance. It’s also up to the legislative branch to define the legal framework for armed conflict: offenses against international and military law, the procedures for their prosecution, the treatment of captured enemy property and prisoners and so forth.
Congress also has the power “to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia.” Military officers are subject to Senate confirmation. Congress can use its exclusive appropriation powers to limit or eliminate funding for a particular conflict—if lawmakers are prepared to take the resulting political risks. Inaction or nonbinding resolutions have no constitutional import.
Even if it passes legislation, Congress cannot dictate when and how the president exercises his power over the military forces it has provided—especially in selecting targets. Like any American, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is free to speak her mind. But her claim that the attack on Soleimani was “provocative and disproportionate” is preposterous.
Iran has been engaged in on-and-off armed conflict with the U.S. since “students” seized the embassy in Tehran in 1979. Soleimani was a uniformed member of the Iranian armed forces, and a critical player in Iran’s worldwide terror campaign. All that made him a legitimate target. The notion that Soleimani was too senior to be killed finds no support in the laws of armed conflict. Even the most senior military leaders can be targeted, as the U.S. did in 1943 when it shot down Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s plane in New Guinea.
Nor is it legally relevant, as some congressional Democrats have claimed, that killing such a high-ranking officer could heighten the danger of a wider war. Any military action has the potential to escalate hostilities, as do other exercises of presidential authority. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s imposition of an oil embargo against Japan in August 1941 arguably prompted the attack on Pearl Harbor four months later.
Under Mrs. Pelosi’s logic, virtually every major foreign-policy decision would require congressional authorization. Imagine if President John F. Kennedy had to ask lawmakers for approval during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 before subjecting Cuba to a “naval quarantine,” an act of war against Havana. The threat of Soviet missiles in Cuba was real, but it wasn’t “imminent” in the sense that Mr. Trump’s critics use that word today.
Kennedy acted to prevent a long-term, highly dangerous change in the nuclear balance of power that would have put Moscow in a position to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. with virtually no warning. But there was no reason to think an attack was planned for the immediate future.
Kennedy decided that action, while risky, would enhance deterrence, as President Trump did when he ordered the killing of Soleimani. The president deserves credit for a decision that would, at any time until recently, have been considered a triumph by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.