World Politics Review
July 27, 2012
In “The Imperial Presidency: Drone Power and Congressional Oversight,” Michael Cohen argues persuasively that the U.S. Congress has abdicated its constitutional and statutory responsibility to reign in the executive branch in matters of national security policy. Then again, few who have been paying attention this past decade — some would say, the past several decades — need much convincing on that point.
Yet, while I agree with Cohen that we desperately need Congress to do its job here as a matter of principle, it’s far from clear that it would change our policy.
Cohen cites the extraordinary decision to kill American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in a Predator strike in Yemen last September as particularly troubling. While Cohen and I both find risible the administration’s claim that its internal deliberations over the assassination of U.S. citizens qualify as their constitutionally guaranteed right to “due process,” it’s pretty clear that we’re in the minority.
In the immediate aftermath of the raid, President Barack Obama earned effusive praise across the political spectrum.
Rep. Peter T. King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, issued a statement declaring, “The killing of al-Awlaki is a tremendous tribute to President Obama and the men and women of our intelligence community.”
Mitt Romney, already the Republican frontrunner in the race to unseat Obama, called the killing “a major victory in our fight against Islamist terrorism and proper justice for the numerous attacks and plots [Awlaki] inspired or planned against America.”
Obama’s fellow Democrats were similarly effusive.
Meanwhile, a June survey by the Pew Research Center found that these strikes were equally popular with the American public, with 62 percent approving, “including most Republicans (74 percent), independents (60 percent) and Democrats (58 percent).” And a February ABC News/Washington Post poll found even stronger support. The Post write-up drolly noted, “83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy, which administration officials refuse to discuss, citing security concerns.”
Cohen, it should be noted, is fully aware of all this. In an insightful piece for Foreign Policy last month, he pointed out that all of the Obama policies that are controversial among foreign policy wonks are wildly popular with voters. Indeed, he remarks, Obama’s toughest critics are in “his own liberal base.” As Cohen rightly states, “It’s hard to imagine that the Obama campaign in Chicago is worrying much about such criticism.”
This is hardly surprising, as Americans rarely punish a president for taking aggressive actions in the name of their safety. Back in January 2006, when former President George W. Bush enjoyed just 37 percent support in polls, the public nonetheless backed his controversial, arguably illegal, policy of eavesdropping on the telephone calls of Americans without a warrant. A New York Times/CBS News poll found that 53 percent supported monitoring “Americans that the government is suspicious of” in connection with terrorism. A Gallup poll found the identical result a month later.
In his 1957 classic, “The President: Office and Powers,” Edward S. Corwin famously declared, “The Constitution is an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy.” While the framers clearly intended for Congress to be the predominant branch in domestic policy, both branches were given substantial power in the realm of international affairs, with no bright lines to delineate them. Most notably, Congress is granted the power to declare war, but the president, as commander-in-chief, has the power to send troops into harm’s way.
In practice, however, presidents have been winning this struggle for more than a century. Teddy Roosevelt was famously contemptuous of Congress in matters of foreign affairs, mocking their dithering over the Panama Canal and sending the Navy halfway around the world, daring Congress not to appropriate the funds to bring it back.
Franklin Roosevelt permanently redefined the role of the presidency during his three-plus terms. Demanding in September 1942 that Congress amend the Emergency Price Control Act, he declared, “The president has the powers, under the Constitution and under congressional acts, to take measures necessary to avert a disaster which would interfere with the winning of the war.”
Roosevelt went on to submit the amendments to Congress, which acceded to his demands, so the judiciary never had a chance to rule on whether the president could so brazenly flout the law.
During the Cold War, the National Security Act of 1947 further centralized national security policy in the White House, leaving Congress increasingly isolated. This was quickly followed by an undeclared war in Korea, a slow descent into an undeclared war in Vietnam and numerous military and intelligence operations of dubious legality, especially in Latin America.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger dubbed this largely unchecked growth of executive power the Imperial Presidency. Congress reasserted itself with the 1973 War Powers Act and the 1975 Church Committee hearings, but the momentum of expanding executive authority was already too great. Presidents have largely treated the former with impunity, and though some of the intelligence abuses of the past have been halted, the latter has received substantial blame for the intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
If the Constitution is “an invitation to struggle,” it is to a struggle that presidents have been winning for decades. The modern presidency has reversed the constitutional presumption that Congress is the pre-eminent branch and the president secondary. Since Franklin Roosevelt, it has been axiomatic that “the president proposes, Congress disposes.” That is especially true in foreign policy and even more so in national security matters.
Congress, of course, retains the theoretical power to reverse all of this. While often reckless, Senate Republicans have demonstrated during Obama’s tenure just how much institutional power exists to fight back against a president. But it’s almost inconceivable that any Congress would marshal its resources in the cause of “weakening” America’s national security. Which means that oversight or not, the use of drones is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.