That latter prerogative, established at a time when warfare was waged with musket balls, has been rendered almost meaningless in the modern era. Congress has not issued a formal declaration of war since 1942 — even though the decades since have seen the U.S. military engaged in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya.
“Congress really does not share in that decision until after the fact. The war-making power has passed to the president,” said Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who was chairman of the House foreign affairs and intelligence committees. “A lot of people, including myself, have been critical of Congress for being too deferential.”
Americans still view the commitment of U.S. forces to be a decision — and a burden — that should be shared between the executive and legislative branches of government, even when citizens themselves are not so certain what the proper course of action should be.
In a new NBC News poll, respondents were divided on whether the United States should intervene in the wake of alleged chemical weapons attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
But opinion in the poll was clear when asked whether Obama “should or should not be required to receive approval from Congress before taking military action in Syria.” Nearly eight in 10 said he should.
Those kind of numbers have persisted on similar questions going at least as far back as the Vietnam era. And it is a position that also draws support from both sides of the aisle in Congress— something that rarely happens in these hyper-partisan days.
“I feel like they’d be in such a better position to call us back and get Congress to take some ownership,” said Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I listen to some of the debates that take place on foreign policy, and so many of them can be sophomoric, silly and not even substantive in regards to the issues the nation is dealing with. I think that’s because Congress has never really had to own up to these issues.”
The concern on Capitol Hill has been intensified by the decision of Britain, normally a stalwart comrade in arms, not to participate in action against Syria.
While there is broad consensus that the Syrian government should be held accountable for the actions it is believed to have taken against its own people, “we are also bound by the ethics of democracy and international lawfulness,” Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said in a statement Thursday that reflected the sentiment of many liberal members of Congress. “Our constitutional checks and balances must be honored.”