Website of Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.

Page Thirteen



Almon Leroy Way, Jr.


Since enactment of the War Powers Act in 1973, every president has disapproved of the statute, regarding its provisions as being unwise, unduly restrictive, and based on the shortsighted views and irresponsible motives of those who drafted the legislation and pushed for its adoption. From 1973 to present date, no president has recognized the War Powers Act as a legitimate restriction on the President's exercise of his constitutional powers as Commander-in-Chief. President Nixon vetoed the legislation on the grounds that, if the bill became law, it would unconstitutionally encroach on the President's war powers. Every post-1973 president has taken the position that the legislative veto incorporated into the statute violates the U.S. Constitution, since it empowers Congress to compel the President to do something the Constitution does not require him to do--namely, remove U.S. military forces from overseas deployment at some point in time arbitrarily set by Congress.

1. President Ford and the War Powers Act

In military crises of very limited scope and duration, President Gerald R. Ford, like his successors, managed to retain the war-making initiative, despite the War Powers Act. In the Mayaguez affair, for example, President Ford undertook limited but rapid and decisive military action against Cambodia, quickly resolved the dispute in America's favor, and then reported to Congress on the matter and his action in dealing with it. In this case, Ford had no problems with the War Powers Act.

However, during the evacuations of DaNang in 1975 and Lebanon in 1976, President Ford faced practical problems in trying to comply with the consultation requirements of the Act. After expiration of his term of office, the ex-President, in a lecture delivered on April 11, 1977, described his difficulties with the consultation provisions of the statute. As regards the DaNang evacuation, Ford said:

    "When the evacuation of DaNang was forced upon us during the Congress's Easter recess, not one of the key bipartisan leaders of the Congress was in Washington.
    "Without mentioning names, here is where we found the leaders of Congress: two were in Mexico, three were in Greece, one was in the Middle East, one was in Europe, and two were in the People's Republic of China. The rest we found in twelve widely scattered states of the Union.
    "This, one might say, is an unfair example, since the Congress was in recess. But it must be remenbered that critical world events, especially military opera- tions, seldom wait for the Congress to meet. In fact, most of what goes on in the world happens in the middle of the night, Washington time." [Quoted in Peter W. Rodman, "The Imperial Congress," THE NATIONAL INTEREST (Fall, 1985), p. 32.]

In describing the consultation problems associated with the 1976 evacuation of Lebanon, Ford related:

    "On June 18, 1976, we began the first evacuation of American citizens from the civil war in Lebanon. The Congress was not in recess, but it had adjourned for the day.
    "As telephone calls were made, we discovered, among other things, that one member of Congress had an unlisted number which his press secretary refused to divulge. After trying and failing to reach another member of Congress, we were told by his assistant that the congressman did not need to be reached.
    "We tried so hard to reach a third member of Congress that our resourceful White House operators had the local police leave a note on the congressman's beach cottage door: 'Please call the White House.'" [IBID.]

2. President Reagan and the War Powers Act

After Republican President Ronald W. Reagan dispatched U.S. Marines to Lebanon in 1982, he reported to Congress, along the lines mandated in the War Powers Act. With a Republican majority in the Senate but a substantial Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, Reagan's military initiative encountered considerable opposition in Congress, resulting in persistent challenges to the deployment of troops in Beirut. The congressional challenges, motivated primarily by narrowly partisan political considerations, weakened and undermined the Reagan Presidency's negotiating position with Syria and with the various warring political factions in Lebanon, thereby making the situation in which the Marines were involved a whole lot more dangerous than it would been in the absence of congressional challenges.

In late 1983, however, congressional leaders worked out a compromise authorizing the President to keep the Marines in Lebanon for a period of eighteen months. Approved by the two houses of Congress, the compromise was sent to the President for his signature.

After signing the accord, President Reagan, in a written message to Congress, stated unequivocally that his assent to the arrangement did not--

    "cede any of the authority vested in me under the Constitution as President and Commander-in-Chief.... Nor should my signing be viewed as any acknowledgement that the President's constitutional authority can be impermissibly infringed by statute." [Quoted in Christopher Madison, "Despite His Complaints Reagan Going Along with Spirit of War Powers Law," NATIONAL JOURNAL (May 19, 1984), p. 990.]

Reagan was never happy with the compromise, feeling that he hand been forced by the reality of the political situation in Congress to accept a less than satisfactory arrangement. Congressional authorization of an 18-month period of continued U.S. military deployment in Lebanon was very costly to the Regan Presidency and to the position of the U.S.A. in the Middle East. Peter W. Rodman, then Director of the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. Department of State, has described the accord and its costs as follows:

    "In September and October, 1983, an accord was reached by which Congress purported to authorize a continued Marine presence in Beirut for eighteen months; in return, legislators exacted a host of assurances by the executive branch of what it would not do, further draining the Marine presence of its deterrent impact. The bombing of the Marine barracks occurred shortly afterward. That event--regurgitated by the Long Commission report in December--led to renewed rumblings in Congress at the end of 1983 that suggested great restlessness about keeping its part of the bargain. This, in turn, convinced the Syrians that the United States was 'short of breath' (as Syrian Foreign Minister Khaddam told his Lebanese counterpart), thus undermining the delicate diplomatic efforts in December and January that sought a negotiated solution." [Rodman, "The Imperial Congress," pp. 31-32.]

Faced with military and diplomatic problems caused, at least in part, by political maneuvering and posturing on the part of members of Congress opposed to the U.S. military presence in Lebanon and by the impact these tactics had on the behavior of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and on that of Lebanese political factions encouraged and supported by the Assad regime, President Reagan probably regretted having taken the time and trouble to comply with the reporting requirements of the War Powers Act. On March 6, 1984, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, in a speech on the Senate floor, candidly addressed the central problem as he perceived it:

    "... the United States with its responsibilities and obligations as a superpower is likely to face with increasing frequency situations of ambiguity and imprecision where neither diplomatic efforts nor the exertion of force can promise a certain outcome. It will require the nicest of judgements in our determination of whether and how the United States should be involved....
    "... Perhaps in addressing these questions we should review whether the War Powers Resolution, as it now stands, remains an appropriate mechanism for the interaction between the executive and the legislative branches of Government. I am personally convinced that we cannot continue to begin each military involvement abroad with a prolonged tedious and divisive negotiation between the executive and the legislative branches of Government. The world and its many challenges to our interests simply do not allow us that luxury." [Quoted in IBID., p. 32.]

In other military actions initiated by President Reagan, he proceeded without invoking the War Powers Act and, in general, acted as if his military initiatives did not require congres- sional authorization in advance. A notable example was the U.S. invasion of Grenada on October 25, 1983. Seeing a serious threat to American national interests in the southern Caribbean region, Regan had the National Security Council and Joint Chiefs of Staff draw up a plan for the U.S. military operation in Grenada, explained the situation to Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, and informed him of the presidential decision that had already been made, as regards what was to be done about the situation. Speaker O'Neill, top leader of the overwhelming Democratic majority in the House of Representa- tives, indicated that, if the Grenada mission turned sour, Congress would not accept responsibility for the fiasco, that responsibility for the disaster (and its attendant political costs) would be borne either by the President alone or by the President and the Republican Party. Accepting responsibility for the operation, Reagan sent U.S. military forces to Grenada, effecting liberation of the small island nation from the Marxist-Leninist (Communist), pro-Cuban dictatorship that had been established through a coup d'etat.

Shortly after the American invasion of Grenada had begun, all resistance was overcome, since the greater part of the Grenadan population welcomed the invading forces as liberators. A rapid sequence of events ensued: U.S. citizens were safely evacuated from the island, the Cuban agents and socalled "construction workers" (in reality, heavily armed and well trained paramilitary personnel) were expelled, the despotic Marxist- Leninist regime was overthrown, and a political coalition committed to democratic elections and more favorably disposed toward American interests was allowed to assume governing authority. Faced with a fait accompli, the U.S. Congress, after the fact, applied the War Powers Act, declining to grant an extention to the 60-day time limit and, in effect, requiring U.S. military forces to be removed from Grenada no later than December 25, 1983. However, the U.S. troops did not leave Grenada until June, 1985.

Another notable example of President Reagan's military initiatives not encountering major problems with Congress and the War Powers Act was the 1986 confrontation with Libyan dictator and Bedouin trouble-maker Muammar al-Qaddafi, involving the naval engagement in the Gulf of Sidra and the aerial bombardment of Libya. Shortly after sinking two Libyan ships and bombing a missile site in Libya, U.S. naval forces, on March 27, were withdrawn from the Gulf of Sidra. On April 14, however, Reagan again sent U.S. warplanes into Libyan air space, on this occasion bombing terrorist-related targets in Tripoli and Benghazi. By the time Congress learned of the operation, U.S. forces had done their job and had been removed from the situation of foreign hostilities.

Congress took no action to oppose or undercut Reagan's military initiatives against the Marxist-Leninists in Grenada and against the Qaddafi regime in Libya. In the case of each of these initiatives, some of the more Leftist-leaning members of Congress and their political allies in the "news" media screamed like stuck pigs, but did very little more than that.

Thus, President Reagan, like President Ford, managed to keep the initiative in dealing with problems relating to national security and military affairs.

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