The 55 men who created the United States Constitution, for better or worse, left us with many provisions in the document that are ambiguous and therefore can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. In a few cases, however, there are rock solid declarations in the Constitution which are so clear and concise that they are not open for discussion. One such assertion is to be found in Article One, Section Eight: "Congress shall have the power. . . to declare war."
That's as clear as can be. Under the Constitution, Congress has the right to declare war. Not the President, not the Supreme Court, not the States, but Congress, and Congress alone. Of all the provisions of the Constitution, this one has been violated on the most systematic basis, and with the gravest consequences for the country.
Technically speaking, the United States has only declared war against other nations during five conflicts since the Constitution was ratified: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. Each of these, of course, were serious conflicts between the United States and either another nation or an alliance of other nations, and which were ended by the signing of a peace treaty with the state or states in question. These were wars that would have been recognizable by Napoleon.
Of course, between 1788 and 1945, there were literally hundreds of small-scale military actions, such as Jefferson's own naval campaign against the Barbary pirates in North Africa or the innumerable military operations (usually misguided and often entirely self-serving) to protect American "interests" in Latin American states. But none of these amounted to a full-scale war against another sovereign state, and Congress either voted their approval of the actions of the President or considered the actions to be generally beneath their notice. If an American warship sends a detachment of Marines ashore in a small country to protect the American consulate from a civil disturbance, it's not really something that Congress needs to get worked up over, provided that previously agreed-upon protocols are followed.
Since the end of the World War II, however, things have changed. On four occasions since 1945, the United States has fought full-scale wars against sovereign states: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The congressional resolutions authorizing military action in Vietnam in 1964 and Iraq in 2002 were based entirely on false pretenses (the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident for Vietnam and the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction for Iraq). On two other occasions, in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, the President ordered the military to occupy small but independent nations. In 1999, a limited war was fought against Serbia. Each of these conflicts were initiated not by Congress, but by the President, with congressional approval only coming later and often only after a deceptive propaganda effort by the executive branch.
Since the end of World War II, the war powers of the federal government have steadily shifted away from the legislative branch and into the hands of the executive branch. We have entered an age when an American President has the power to launch the nation into a unilateral war. Such power effectively being in the hands of a single individual should chill the blood of all American citizens.
In the wake of the American defeat in the Vietnam War (which, lest we forget, cost the lives of 58,000 Americans), Congress passed the War Powers Resolution. This requires the President to notify Congress within two days of the beginning of any military action that such an action is taking place, and gives a 60 day window (with an additional 30 days for a withdrawal) for combat operations to last, after which Congress must approve of any further continuation o the operation. Most Presidents have paid little attention, and many scholars believe the resolution to be unconstitutional.
In the nuclear age, it may be that old-fashioned declarations of war have become obsolete. At the very least, however, we need a much more concise and comprehensive legislative clarification of Presidential war powers, by a constitutional amendment if necessary. Firstly, except in rare cases of responded to some sort of surprise attack, the President must be absolutely prohibited from ordering the military into action without congressional approval, even under the authority of United Nations resolutions (for although treaties are part of the supreme law of the land, as specified in Article Six of the Constitution, they cannot override the congressional authority to declare war, which is enshrined in the Constitution itself).
Secondly, any congressional authorization for the use of military force must have a set time limit, after which another congressional vote would be necessary for the President to continue the operation. The alternative is an open-ended resolution that would allow the President to continue military operations indefinitely. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was ostensibly intended to allow the President to retaliate against North Vietnam for an attack on an American warship, but it eventually was twisted into authorization for the deployment of a massive American army of half a million men, fighting in Southeast Asia for years.
Congress must reclaim its constitutional role as the branch of government responsible for deciding whether or not America goes to war. Had it not abandoned its responsibilities after 1945, tens of thousands of Americans who died in the wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East might never have perished. While this issue has been swept under the carpet after President George W. Bush left office, it is still festering within the constitutional framework, and it must be attended to as soon as possible.