War Powers in the Haiti Crisis

August 07, 1994

President Clinton is correct in stating he is not constitutionally mandated to seek Congress' support should he decide to send U.S. forces into Haiti to overthrow its military junta. Even the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which has been repudiated by every president since its passage, does not require the prior approval demanded by Congress.

This newspaper opposes an invasion of Haiti at this time for reasons that have been directly attributed to Defense Secretary William Perry -- namely, that the United States should continue to explore non-military means of ousting the illegal regime in Port au Prince rather than risk the lives of American soldiers.

At the end of the day the president -- and only the president -- is commander in chief with strategic and tactical authority over the disposition of forces. The Founding Fathers, after some debate, determined in their wisdom that Congress should not have power to "make" war but only to "declare" war. Congress' real leverage lies in its power of the purse. Presidents can send troops into situations of peril, but they cannot keep them there for long if Congress cuts off their funding.

As for formal declarations of war, they have been issued only five times in the nation's history and are as obsolete as 18th century staged-managed battles with elaborately costumed battalions. In contrast, presidents have made war 193 times, ranging from the large Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf operations to quick fly-swatter police actions such as Grenada. In reaction to Vietnam, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution -- over President Nixon's veto. This unworkable and unconstitutional measure requires that Congress be notified within 48 hours if forces are being sent into situations threatening imminent hostilities. They must be withdrawn within 60 to 90 days unless Congress approves. How's that for tipping off an enemy with self-imposed deadlines?

During the Reagan-Bush era, the Democrats were loud in their protests against the Grenada, Panama and Persian Gulf operations. This time, Republicans are in the forefront of opposition to involvement in Haiti, thus proving once again that the battle over war powers is almost always political rather than constitutional. The party of the "ins" will tend to support presidential authority; the party of the "outs" will be trying to checkmate the commander in chief.

Mr. Clinton's role in the Haitian crisis is complicated by the fact that his administration is split right up to its highest levels. Secretary Perry reportedly thinks it is "immoral" to risk American lives in Haiti; Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott thinks it is "immoral" to stay out. Given that evidence of chronic indecision in the Clinton White House, Congress is bound to be tempted to assert excessive war-power claims that must be resisted lest dangerous precedents be set.

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