We should recall James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’”

By Gene Healy
This article appeared in The Federalist
on October 10, 2014.

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In May 2013, some 11 years into the War on Terror, President Obama took a break from reviewing target sets and kill lists to deliver a much-anticipated “drone speech” at the National Defense University in Washington DC. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” Obama admonished; “we have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’”

It was a disorienting performance: at times, Obama seemed to be speaking not as the president, but as his own loyal opposition—a thoughtful critic who might conduct himself differently if installed as head of Dronefleet Command. “Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions,” Obama intoned, “we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers.” He welcomed this debate… with himself.

With Tomahawks raining down on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, it would be nice to have Congress debate the president’s newly declared war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but it doesn’t look like that will happen anytime soon.

Still, it’s not too early to take stock of the Obama legacy on constitutional war powers. He’ll go down in history as a “transformational” president, having completed America’s transformation into a country where “continual warfare” is the post-constitutional norm.

War: The New Normal

Obama’s hardly the first president to wage war without congressional authorization. Although the Constitution invests Congress alone “with the power of changing our condition from peace to war,” every post-World War II president has found some excuse for striking out on his own. Many of these engagements were of the “frolic and detour” variety: rescue missions,retaliatory fly-bys against rogue regimes, short incursions to depose a dictator or reverse a coup. Longer commitments—like the peacekeeping deployments to Lebanon and Somalia, Bill Clinton’s 78-day air war in Yugoslavia, even the decade-plus of no-fly-zone enforcement in Iraq following the Gulf War—were nonetheless territorially confined.

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