More To The Story

In this brief collection of lectures inspired by the September 11 attack on the United States, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis attempts to demonstrate that the Bush Administration's response is not as great a departure from American traditions as co

In this brief collection of lectures inspired by the September 11 attack on the United States, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis attempts to demonstrate that the Bush Administration's response is not as great a departure from American traditions as commonly believed.  In particular, he argues, John Quincy Adams based his foreign policy on the principles of preemption, unilateralism and hegemony, thereby establishing a pattern for his successors to follow.

It is a very innovative interpretation of American history, and Gaddis's reputation means the argument must be taken seriously.  Unfortunately, the very brevity of Gaddis's book limits the discussion.  A thesis so startling needs to be developed more fully.  More to the point, it needs to take into account obvious objections.

Let us take each of the propositions in turn.  First, there is no question the Founders allowed for the possibility of preemption, if by that we mean the initiating of war.  The issue was discussed at the Constitutional Convention, and the power to initiate war was given to Congress.  "The only case in which the Executive can enter on a war, undeclared by Congress, is when a state of war has ‘been actually' produced by the conduct of another power," James Madison wrote James Monroe on November 16, 1827.[i] That position was not controversial at the time.  Indeed, President Monroe had written Madison in 1824 revealing that when asked by the Colombian minister whether, in light of the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. would come to Colombia's assistance in the event of war with France, he had replied that "the Executive has no right to compromit [sic] the nation in any question of war."[ii]

The question, in other words, is not whether the United States can initiate war (or preempt), but who should decide on that ultimate and dangerous course.  What distinguishes our present situation from the one 200 years ago is the assumption that the President makes the decision to initiate war.  To be sure, the Bush position is not new; for example, President Bill Clinton initiated armed conflict in the Balkans without authorization from Congress.  Yet the resolution passed by Congress in 2002 authorizing war against Iraq is distinctive because Congress agreed to transfer its responsibility to the President.  According to the text of the resolution, "the President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate" against Iraq subject to the provisions of the War Powers Act.[iii]

In other words, the President, not Congress, decided if and when the United States would initiate war with Iraq, which did not begin for several months.  Contrast that situation to the War of 1812.  There is "on the side of Great Britain a state of war against the United States, and on the side of the United States a state of peace toward Great Britain," President Madison asserted in his war message to Congress, acknowledging that "whether the United States shall continue passive under these progressive usurpations and these accumulating wrongs, or, opposing force to force in defense of their national rights, … , is a solemn question which the Constitution wisely confides to the legislative department of the Government."[iv]

Congress then made the decision for war with Britain.  Similarly, in the war against Mexico, which Gaddis cites as a model of preemption, Congress declared "a state of war exists" in response to a message from President James K. Polk.[v] It is one thing for Congress to decide the United States is at war and instruct the president to conduct it; it is something else altogether for Congress to transfer the authority to make that decision to the president.  That is what is so distinctive about the preemptive doctrine today, and why it raises such concern.  In effect, we are turning the Constitutional procedure upside down, and we are doing so without even realizing it or appreciating the example we are setting for other countries.

With regard to unilateralism, two points must be made.  First, the international legal regime is far different from what it was two centuries ago.  In particular, the United Nations Charter specifies that military action other than self-defense must be authorized by the Security Council.  Unilateralism is in large measure a justification for ignoring the United Nations, but the Constitution specifies that ratified treaties are "the supreme Law of the land."  Since the President's responsibility is to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, unilateralism now confronts a legal complication that did not exist at the time of Adams.

Second, there is a practical objection.  In the nineteenth century, American objectives were limited, matching our capabilities.  When unilateralism was proclaimed with much fanfare, its ambitions were limitless, based on an underlying assumption of irresistible American power.  As recent events have demonstrated, however, even American resources are not limitless.  The Bush Administration is now desperately seeking allies, but is finding that those whose advice it spurned are not rushing to come to its assistance.