JAMES K. POLK was the first president to snooker the U.S. into a war. In 1846, he sent troops into disputed territory to goad Mexico into attacking. It worked. Congress, which he'd duped, had no choice except to declare war. Polk captured his prize -- California and the rest of what is now our Southwest.
Thus the second U.S. war of conquest. The first: grabbing the country from its original residents, who, in a geographic stupor, we called Indians. It also was our second under the Constitution (the poorly waged business of 1812 having preceded it).
Obviously, the imperial presidency has deep if less than respectable historical roots. Still, despite today's right-wing liturgy about 200 presidential martial solos, nobody from Polk to Harry Truman committed us to an honest-to-God war without a congressional declaration.
So don't let Congress' talent for reducing the loftiest debate to a fishwife yelling match fool you. The business of who can send our youngsters off to war is important, not so much in the Persian Gulf (Congress has for practical purposes already reneged on that one) as for how we function in the future.
The Constitution is clear on the issue, contrary to the mental gymnastics of conservative think-tank pedants who renewed their love affair with absolute monarchy when they started winning the presidency. Ignore the writ of the founding fathers, they counsel. God's original intent demands White House rule without inconvenience from the Hill.
When the Eastern establishment managed foreign policy as noblesse oblige, mainly for Democratic administrations, it justified presidential sovereignty on practical rather than theological grounds. The masses simply couldn't understand the complexities of foreign affairs.
That mindset gave us Vietnam and Korea. It held greatest sway under Eisenhower, a father figure so trusted that Congress voted him a blank check to go to war with China whenever he pleased. Fortunately, Ike instinctively distrusted war and ignored his advisers, led by Nixon, who kept urging it.
Unfortunately, he also was intrigued with the device -- which Truman had dabbled with -- of using the CIA as war surrogate, with no accountability to anyone. That set in train such disasters as the Bay of Pigs, the overthrow of Allende, Watergate and Iran-contra.
Abraham Lincoln saw things differently. Commenting on Polk's imperialism, he said: "Allow the president to invade a neighboring country whenever he shall deem it necessary . . . and you allow him to make war at pleasure."
Kings had a weakness for doing just that, Lincoln said, which was one of the reasons we devised a way to govern without them.
The question of the power to make war goes to the heart of the rationale for democracy. Can an elite watch over the fortunes of a country better than the people themselves? History suggests not, and, anyway, those who will bear the consequences have a right to decide. That way they suffer for their own, not someone else's, mistakes.