President Obama quoted from the Gettysburg Address when he first announced his decision to seek congressional authorization for using military force in Syria. In last Tuesday night’s speech, Obama continued to argue that “democracy is stronger” by striving to live up to Abraham Lincoln’s noble ideals.
Lincoln was a thoughtful skeptic of presidential actions he considered unconstitutional or unnecessary. As a congressman in the late 1840s, he criticized President James Polk for launching the Mexican War. As a wartime president, Lincoln responded coolly to any suggestions that he use military action in Europe to deflect from the real crisis at home. He wisely observed that it was always best to pursue “one war at a time.”
Nonetheless, Lincoln also believed in following one leader at a time. In 1849, he warned a fellow party member and Cabinet officer against allowing the “public mind” to become fixed with the idea that the president was “a mere man of straw.” Lincoln observed that all presidents “must occasionally say, or seem to say, ‘by the eternal,’ ‘I take the responsibility.'” Then he added with a pointed reference to his old political nemesis, Andrew Jackson, that “those phrases were the ‘Samson’s locks’ of Gen. Jackson, and we dare not disregard the lessons of experience.”
A ‘man of straw’?
By deferring to Congress on Syrian intervention, Obama has risked shearing his own “Samson’s locks” and leaving himself open to the impression that he has become “a mere man of straw.”
This is not to say that the use of military force in Syria would have been the right policy. Instead, it underscores the point that any decision about initiating military strikes belongs with the president. The time for congressional oversight comes after these complicated, often sensitive calculations.
Such raw assertions of presidential power infuriate many constitutional scholars and political pundits, but this is one of the great lessons of Lincoln’s wartime example. The Civil War president acted in ways that reframed the question of war-making and the Constitution, providing a model for a refined separation-of-powers doctrine.
Lincoln demonstrated that war powers work best when the president, and not Congress, takes the lead. While Congress holds the authority to declare war, it is the president as commander in chief who must make war. There is a tension in that relationship that the original Framers hardly acknowledged, but that Lincoln was compelled to work through under the crucible of the nation’s gravest crisis. What resulted was not perfect, but it did establish a framework that balanced national security with respect for the rule of law.
Court backed Lincoln
Then as now, Congress was out of session when Fort Sumter was attacked. But Lincoln took action. He launched an effort to suppress the rebellion “without waiting for Congress to baptize it with a name,” as Justice Robert Grier later explained in a pivotal Supreme Court ruling upholding the president’s war-making authority. During the war itself, which Congress never actually declared, legislators provided oversight that helped keep the Lincoln administration accountable.
This helps explain why since the days of Lincoln, there has been an implicit “chronology of powers” in U.S. war-making. Presidents act. Congress reacts. Courts review. This doctrine was not explicit in the 1787 constitutional text, but nobody can deny that it has become our reality. Not even the 1973 War Powers Act seriously altered that dynamic.
Yet Obama’s reversal on Syria might. By trying to engage Congress before taking action and by encouraging further delays in the decision-making process, Obama has shifted the chronological template. Other modern presidents, even George W. Bush, have occasionally sought use of force resolutions from Congress, but not for such limited airstrikes. Many critics of the imperial presidency are enthusiastic about this newfound caution from the White House, but they are the ones disregarding the “lessons of experience.”
Decisive presidents sometimes make catastrophic mistakes, but so do ill-informed Congresses. War can be declared, but war-making must not be limited by pre-emptive resolutions or public opinion polls. Instead, we must recognize that the template for America’s crisis leadership begins, but does not end, with a commander in chief fully prepared to accept his responsibilities alone.
Matthew Pinsker holds the Pohanka Chair in American Civil War History at Dickinson College and serves as a Schwartz Fellow at the New American Foundation. This article first appeared in USA Today.
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