Professor Panel Discusses Status of War

As part of the political science department’s ongoing lecture series, a panel made up SMCM’s very own political science professors Susan Grogan and Todd Eberly discuss what it means to be at war.

They said that in recent years, there has been a widening “disconnect” between what war is and is not.  The U.S. Constitution, Article 1 Section 8, gives the power to declare war to Congress.  However, the United States Congress has not declared war since World War II.  In other words, you could say that since 1945, the United States has been at peace.

Yet, in the past 65 years, the United States has been involved with many “armed conflicts” that include but are not limited to conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya.  This leads to the central questions of the talk: what counts as a war and who determines what it is?

According to Grogan, who gave a brief history of war in the United States, Congress has on several occasions deferred the war-making powers to the President without declaring war. For example, Congress authorized President John Adams to use privateers against the French government, and President Thomas Jefferson had Congress authorize military actions against the Barbary Pirates.

The most impressive authorization without a declaration of war from Congress was the Civil War.  According to Grogan, the Civil War was not a legal war and that the name is actually a misnomer; a better name for the conflict would be “The Great Suppression.”  Eberly seconded this comment by saying that the Civil War should really be called the great “Civil Police Action.”

Eberly then discussed the two opposing views within political science about if the President should have the power to use the military and force without authorization of Congress.  On the one hand, it could be argued that the world has changed and that the country needs a President who can make quick decisions about the use of force without waiting for Congress to debate.  On the other hand, there is the belief that even if times have changed, one can not run around the Constitution.

“If we like the [President having more war-making powers], we have to change the Constitution,” Eberly said, “the Constitution is the law.”

Even though the Congress in the past has authorized the use of force, in the present case of Libya, President Obama has not asked for authorization from Congress, thereby skipping the branch entirely.   There is now questions whether this was the legal move.

Eberly continued by saying that he is, “hung up on if American force in Libya is legal or constitutional.”

After the discussion ended, several members of the audience asked questions. One concerned student asked, “can we fix this problem by defining what ‘war’ means?” Grogan answered by pointing to the War Powers Act.  This act was Congress’ attempt to regulate the President’s power after Vietnam; however, it did not work.  This act has opened the door to a greater increase of power, since the President is allowed to send troops for a set period of time before he must ask for re-authorization.

Grogan ended the talk by saying that in the end, if Congress wants the power, it must fight for it.  “Congress doesn’t call the President out,” concluded Grogan.

Sophomore and former student in Eberly’s American Politics class Kristen Diehl said she “found [the talk] very interesting, including the question whether its right or legal for the President to send troops into conflict without Congress’ approval.”


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