War Powers in the Haiti Crisis

September 16, 1994

President Clinton, in his address to the nation last night on the Haiti crisis, never once mentioned the Congress or acknowledged a legislative role in sending U.S. troops into peril.

We recognize that this president -- any president -- is obliged to protect executive authority from legislative encroachment in the exercise of his duties as commander in chief. But what if he acts unwisely, what if he over-reaches, what if he pursues a course of action overwhelmingly opposed by the public and the Congress as seems to be the case in commiting the U.S. to an invasion of Haiti? Then he risks not only his own prerogatives but those of his successors.

Defenders of administration policy are counting on American forces to topple the military junta in Haiti quickly, restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power and get out. All with relatively few casualties or later complications.

Would that matters were so simple. President Clinton can count on public support of the armed forces once they are put in peril. But he has no reason to be confident that the aftermath of Haitian invasion will be trouble-free. Armed thuggery is too much a tradition in that unhappy country.

So Mr. Clinton is off into uncharted territory having told the nation last night that the U.S. must stop the brutal atrocities of the junta, secure our borders from mass immigration, promote stability and democracy and uphold "the reliability of our commitments around the world." Yet did not his own administration's rhetoric create the credibility problem in the first place?

By his actions, Mr Clinton may have compromised the claim made by all modern presidents that they can commit forces to battle without gaining the prior approval of Congress. On frequent occasions since the Vietnam war, this newspaper has defended a succession of presidents against congressional efforts to stymie their war powers by enhancing Congress' own. We believe Mr. Clinton has the constitutional right to order an invasion force into Haiti. But we question his wisdom in making Haiti a test case of his powers.

Now, alas, administration policy has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The president cannot afford to be out-bluffed by the Haitian military or rebuffed by a Congress he seeks to bypass. The impact on the U.S. position in the world would be devastating. And so, our country may now be in a position where it has no choice but to go ahead with an intervention in Haiti.

Future presidents, however, may have scant cause to thank Bill Clinton for whatever consequences ensue. The legislative response to Vietnam was the War Powers Act, which every president since has rejected as usurpation of executive authority. When the Haiti crisis is over, Congress may attempt once again to curtail presidential power in ways ranging from dangerous to unconstitutional. America's ability to exert world leadership could be damaged as a result.

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