Politics & Policy

The War-Time Constitution Swap

Prime minister Cameron and President Obama (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
How did we get to where a British executive goes to the legislature and an American does not?

By now, President Obama will have been made happily aware that the British parliament has voted to bomb Iraq. Serving as it does to broaden his coalition and to increase the number of voices singing in harmony with his own, one can only presume that the news will have put the president in a good humor. Good tidings, these days, are rarely attracted to Pennsylvania Avenue. And yet, having learned of the manner in which the British have come aboard, a certain unease should have crept in to puncture the delight. After a robust and fractious debate, the BBC reports, the British parliament consented to join America in Iraq by 524 votes to 43, legislators choosing by an overwhelming majority to provide Prime Minister Cameron with the mandate that he had sought. America’s Congress, meanwhile, has still not been consulted on the question at all. Something here is seriously wrong.

Earlier this week, when Obama announced that the United States would be joined in its bombing of Syria by Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, a few wags joked bitterly that the governments of those nations did not need to secure the assent of their legislatures because, unlike the United States, they are monarchies. The jab landed, and today, in light of the news from London, it has been rendered even more cutting. For those of us who remain jealous of the rule of law, it has been little short of grotesque to watch just how differently the British and the Americans have dealt with this most weighty of questions. In the United States — which country’s constitution explicitly prohibits the chief executive from declaring war without congressional acquiescence — the incumbent president has not only taken to insisting that he may act abroad as he sees fit, but on more than one occasion he has done just that — first, in Libya, in 2011; and now in the mess we call Iraq and Syria. Neither action was insignificant, the former decision having effected regime change; the latter, per his own Department of Defense, being likely to rage for years to come. In Britain, by contrast, the legislature today debated in full whether or not the military should strike Iraq, even though that country’s constitution explicitly accords to the executive the power to send the armed forces into combat. Thus have we been treated to the preposterous sight of a man who enjoys absolute discretion over military matters requesting permission to join a war, while a man who is bound by law to seek consent from the legislature goes it alone.

The British Parliament’s involvement was by no means superficial. Last year, much to David Cameron’s embarrassment, a majority of MPs voted down a proposal that would have seen Britain join any American action against Bashar Assad. Deeply chastened, Cameron nonetheless stood by the verdict, telling reporters that the legislature had spoken and that he would not be seeking a second tally. Having perhaps learned his lesson, Cameron today asked MPs only for permission to hit Iraq, declining to expand the question to cover Syria as well for fear that a broader request would be rejected. Watching the debate, I was struck by how open the whole thing was. “Let me be frank,” the prime minister said, “we should not expect this to happen quickly.” Instead, he conceded, “the hallmarks of this campaign will be patience and persistence, not shock and awe,” and the action will likely last “not months but years.” There is much that is wrong with the Mother of Parliaments, but today it served as an exemplar. The opposition was tenacious and incisive; the executive was engaged and direct. Both parties seemed aware of their role and of their responsibilities. Are you watching, John Boehner?

What can explain the difference between Cameron’s approach and Obama’s? Certainly, it is not that Cameron considers the Islamic State to be less of a threat than does Obama and that, in consequence, he was happy to risk a loss. “Left unchecked,” Cameron warned gravely at one point, “we will face a terrorist caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean, bordering a NATO member, with a declared and proven determination to attack our country and our people.” Nor can it be the case that Obama can be trusted where Cameron cannot, or that legislatures are in some way less important on one side of the Atlantic than the other. Whatever the explanation, Obama’s failure to follow the rules is made all the more execrable when one considers just how explicit the American Founders were in their desire to eliminate the caprice and informality that marks the British model. James Madison, who considered the legislature’s control over the war-making powers as the “wisest” measure within his Constitution, explained in no uncertain terms that the document “confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.” Why? Because, “beside the objection to such a mixture of heterogeneous powers, the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man.” That temptation, Madison would later write, was well established, the Constitution presuming “what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it,” and that it was only prudent therefore to have “vested the question of war to the Legislature.” As David Freddoso noted last year, even the more hawkish Alexander Hamilton concurred with Madison’s assessment, explaining that while the power “of the British king extends to the declaring of war and the raising and regulating of fleets and armies,” these powers, “by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature.”

When Hamilton wrote those words, the constitution had not yet been ratified and the rules had not yet been set. Now, however, they are in full force. How peculiar it would be for America’s architects to witness our present predicament, in which a representative of the Queen of England submits his desires to the assent of parliament, while the president of the United States folds Article II into a paper crown and mounts it calmly upon his head.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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