No one declares war anymore! Not since World War II has any nation declared war on another — with the possible exception of a 1967 declaration against Israel by five Arab countries. While fighting remains as common as ever, the practice of issuing formal declarations has gone out of style.
It’s not the first time that’s happened. Formal declarations of war fell out of fashion during the 17th century, too. Our Founding Fathers thought that was wrong, and so they stuck a requirement in the Constitution saying Congress must approve a declaration before the nation went to war.
But that provision was never intended as an absolute check on executive power. Not all military operations constitute wars. Nor is a war declaration the only legitimate way Congress can signal support for military operations.
As “The Heritage Guide to the Constitution” points out, there have been only five declared wars in our nation’s history, but numerous other hostilities “have been specifically authorized by Congress through instruments other than formal declarations.” The framers of the Constitution, however, did think there was something important about “formal” declarations. Democracies, they felt, were fundamentally different from other states and ought to be as open and transparent as possible about what they were doing.
War declarations are part of that transparency regimen. When you declare war, you specify your grievances and how you expect to resolve them. That is actually a good practice, and it is too bad democracies have gotten away from it.
Yet, clearly, President Obama has the authority to order the current operations in Libya. The Constitution divides the powers of initiating military actions between the executive and Congress to foster deliberation and consultation to the extent possible under the circumstances. But at the end of the day, the president is the commander in chief. He alone bears the legal and moral responsibility for ordering U.S. armed forces into action.
What rankles most about the president’s decision on Libya is the lack of open deliberation and discussion. Certainly he had time to consult Congress and the American people about military options, yet he spent much more time consulting with the U.N. Security Council.
It is discomforting to see an American president seemingly defer to the United Nations rather than lead the country. Moreover, the U.N. resolution he got does not help much. The United Nations is not sovereign, nor do we need its permission to act in the world.
Furthermore, the resolution is vague and open-ended. And President Obama so far has done little to provide clarity about our objectives and our commitment.
Helping “protect civilians” is an aspiration, not a mission. Promising to put no boots on the ground just tells us what tactics are off the table.
Stating the United States will not pursue “regime change” declares what the mission is not, not what it is.
These are serious concerns. The lack of congressional consultation and the vagueness of the mission deny Americans what the Constitution intended: a clear statement of purpose about U.S. military action. It is vital to avoid “mission creep” and perpetual fighting.
All that said, a declaration of war against Libya would be a bad idea, because going to war in Libya is a bad idea. That is not to say that the United States should do nothing, but Libya does not merit significant, protracted operations by U.S. forces.
You fight wars to protect vital national interests. The United States has legitimate interests in the outcome of the Libyan turmoil: seeing Gadhafi brought to justice, and not seeing a new terrorist haven established, a humanitarian crisis, a wave of refugees overwhelming our European allies or civil war spreading to nearby nations. But these concerns fall short of being vital national interests and can be addressed through measures short of war.
• Carafano is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.