Saturday’s CBS/National Journal Republican presidential debate on foreign policy once again showed the limits of the establishment media’s grasp of constitutional principles and how the Constitution, as the law that governs government, should instruct our foreign policy.
During the entire event, the questions seemed to assume that the President is unconstrained in his or her ability to act in matters of national security -- and that the role of Commander-in-Chief is tantamount to being a military dictator.
Unfortunately, with the exception of Congressman Ron Paul, the Republican candidates for President generally joined this shallow analysis and skipped-over the Constitution in their answers to the questions raised by their establishment media interrogators.
For example, Newt Gingrich’s application of President Ronald Reagan’s strategy against the Soviet Union to the present situation with Iran was one of the best answers of the debate, and once again demonstrated that Newt’s grasp of policy is why he is coming on strong and rising in the polls.
But it didn’t answer the first question that ought to be asked, which is “What does the Constitution empower the President to do in such a situation?”
Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution vests extensive national security powers in Congress -- the powers to raise and support armies and provide and maintain a Navy, to declare war and to “To define and punish… Offences against the Law of Nations.”
In contrast to those extensive national security related powers the Constitution grants to Congress, Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution grants fairly limited powers to the President. True, the President is Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy and is empowered to appoint Ambassadors and, with the advice and consent of the Senate, make treaties with foreign powers. However, the big ticket items, such as the power to declare war and to create and maintain the military reside with Congress.
Of course, exercising these national security powers requires Congress to take responsibility for the cost in blood and treasure, and for the results achieved, and taking responsibility for anything beyond getting re-elected is not the strong suit of Congress and its members. Consequently, over the course of the twentieth century, Congress ceded much of its real national security related power to the President. Succeeding Presidents gradually consolidated that power -- especially through the use of secrecy -- until Congress was largely cut out of national security policy making.
Naturally, there have been some Congressional attempts to reassert its authority (the Boland Amendment for example), but these efforts have usually been partisan -- particularly Democrat partisan -- political ploys, rather than principled efforts to establish, define and implement a national security policy based on Constitutional principles.
Those who object to re-establishing the Constitutional role of Congress in matters of national security because it makes national security too public and too complicated might ponder what Congressman Ron Paul said during Saturday’s debate, “…you go to the Congress and find out if our national security is threatened… [then] you get a declaration of war and you fight it and you win it and get it over with.” That sounds a whole lot less complicated, and a whole lot more in line with what the Founders had in mind for how to conduct our foreign relations, than what is going on in national security policy right now.