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Obama at War: Congress and the Imperial Presidency

Obama at War: Congress and the Imperial Presidency by Ryan C. Hendrickson. University Press of Kentucky, 2015, 192 pp.

The Constitution of the United States unequivocally bestows, and the War Powers Resolution (WPR) of 1973 further reinforces, the power to declare war to the Congress. In this book, Dr. Ryan C. Hendrickson points out every president (Democratic and Republican) since World War II has increasingly used the mantle of commander in chief to apply military force in various situations without prior Congressional authorization. To show Pres. Barack Obama does not discriminate in the types of situations where he unilaterally acts, the author describes four examples: operations in Afghanistan, including the particular use of drone technology; combat against Indian Ocean piracy; military strikes against Libya; and the use of US fighting and consultation forces in South Sudan. In all of these cases, Congress has not directly authorized the use of military force application outside of the United States. It has either not taken up the issue for debate or key leaders of both parties have defended President Obama’s actions.

It is this independent presidential deed and Congress’s apparent willingness to allow the president to act in this manner that frames Hendrickson’s thesis: Anytime any president individually authorizes the use of combat operations on foreign soil without the advice and consent of the joint Congress, he is acting unconstitutionally. Further, any Congress that does not use the inherent checks and balances mechanism to force the president to get the advice and consent of the joint Congress before committing those forces overseas is also acting unconstitutionally.

The author asserts that over the years since World War II, and through much iteration of presidential administrations and congresses, the authority to wage war has politically shifted from the legislative branch to the executive. The political majority in Congress has switched several times, but the outcome has remained the same, resulting in an evident congressional apathy and wide deference to the president to protect the United States. The author keys on the presumption that members of Congress are usually always in campaign and fundraising mode and must be very careful in how they are perceived by their constituents. Many are not likely to present a legitimate challenge; however, the author does describe a few “rebels” who make a bit of noise from time to time. Hendrickson details several efforts fronted by newer members of Congress attempting to reel in the presidential military power only to be thwarted by their own Congressional leaders. These establishment leaders are shown to go so far as to actively promote the president’s flexible authority to conduct offensive military operations with prior congressional notification and consent. Their rationale echoes the president’s argument that these actions are necessary for the commander in chief to protect the United States from harm.

To resolve this issue, the author looks to each of the federal government branches for recourse. When judicial cases have come forward from members of the House or Senate, federal courts have refused to hear the cases on the merits, citing the congressional plaintiff’s lack of a justiciable legal question suitable for judicial review. The legislature does not have the right kind of leadership with the political willpower and equity to push for this kind of significant reform. The executive does not appear willing to retreat from the established position. Hendrickson asserts the only sure path back to the Constitution’s foundations is for Congress to affirmatively wrest control from the presidency.

It is important for the reader to understand the very narrow scope of this book. The thesis does not go very far beyond the assertions that the president consistently acts in an unconstitutional manner and the Congress consistently acts in a somewhat negligent manner. Alone and based on the facts, Hendrickson believes he is right and has a valid constitutional argument. To the extent he identifies the issue and discusses some clear ways to resolve it, he does so rather well—with ample research and documentation.

However, politics and national governance do not occur in a vacuum. One does not simply take a single piece of the big picture, examine it, point out its flaws, and consider the analysis complete. The entire context of the situation must be considered. Hendrickson fails to address the necessary and next logical steps. How would the outcome of these combat operations been different if Congress had explicitly authorized warfare? What negative implications, if any, would have been averted had Congress acted before the president? The author does not address these questions—even to say the outcome can never be truly known. He does not explain how the United States’ national security posture would be different if Congress granted presidential war powers before each foreign conflict. Certainly if he could, the results might strengthen his position.

This book is a quick and enjoyable read that challenges the reader to think about the oft-debated argument of textual versus practical readings of the US Constitution. Words mean things, and reasonable minds can come to different conclusions based upon different interpretations of the same words. Hendrickson has a point: from a literal reading of the Constitution, many presidents and congresses since the second half of the last century have acted unconstitutionally. However, the realities of the modern world force the reader to decide if the president’s authority as commander in chief allows the use of proactive military force in foreign lands and ultimately if the ends justify the means.

Maj Randall Mercer, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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