Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 2016

In mid-March, University of Virginia president, Teresa Sullivan, delivered an eloquent address at the commemoration of James Madison's 265th birthday, at Montpelier, Virginia. Citing Madison's and Jefferson's shared view that education "is an essential pre-condition for individual freedom and protection of democracy," she called attention to Madison's unique contribution in crafting the U.S. constitution in 1787.

Madison favored a strong, independent presidency, but he did not foresee the vastly changed world we now live in. including the president's expanded role in national security.

The checks-and-balances system among three branches of government that Madison devised worked well in constraining congressional excesses and in limiting the president's power to overreach. It gave the Senate power to approve presidential appointments, including ambassadors, military commanders and federal judges. It gave the House of Representatives primary responsibility for raising revenue and approving federal budgets, including limits on military spending.

Fifteen years later, in 1803, the Supreme Court asserted its right to declare legislation unconstitutional, limiting the authority of both Congress and the President.

Significantly, the war powers provisions caused much debate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Some delegates argued that giving the president control of the military without adequate protections risked the people's liberties. In Anti-Federalist Paper #67, they asserted that "if the president is possessed of ambition, he has the power and time to ruin the country."

In the end, delegates agreed to give Congress authority to raise and equip the armed forces and to declare war when the country engaged in large-scale combat. The president, however, was made commander-in-chief of the forces, and he decided how they were used. Left undecided was the president's use of the forces in situations that were not considered large-scale.

The second World War and the Cold War greatly expanded the president's powers to use the armed forces abroad even when Congress didn't declare war, as in Korea (1950-53) and Vietnam (1965-73).

In 1973 Congress attempted to limit presidential power by passing the War Powers Act, which President Nixon vetoed because, he argued, it infringed on his powers as commander-in-chief, More recently, in the current Syrian conflict, Congress ignored President Obama's request that it authorize his use of air power and military intelligence units against ISIS targets.

Congress' near-abdication of control over the president's war-making power was not anticipated by Madison. but critics were clear on the dangers involved (Anti-Federalist 67) and worried that a determined commander-in-chief could become a virtual dictator.

The horrific terrorist bombings last week in Brussels, following similar ISIS attacks last fall in aris, arouses fear across Europe and new calls for action by governments. Watching these shocking pictures on TV makes Americans fear for their own security.

We hear growing calls on federal and state authorities for protection of U.S. citizens and our transportation systems. Fear can also result in abridging the civil liberties of other citizens, as happened during the WWII when Japanese-Americans were interned during the war.

During this election campaign, we'll hear calls for strong action, including military force, to fight the ISIS threat in the Middle East and Africa, and here at home. That responsibility inevitably falls on the president as commander-in-chief.

It is imperative that Congress exercise its role as a check on a president's power to use the armed forces. If it fails that responsibility, we risk allowing the president, whoever it is, to assume great powers by default, a milestone on the road to authoritarian rule.

File last modified on Monday, 10-MAR-2015 10:04 AM EST

Feedback to Author