The humanitarian crisis that began brewing last week in Iraq, with the news that the lives of some 40,000 religious minorities were gravely threatened by the self-pronounced Islamic State, generated calls from politicians and members of the media for a quick, resolute military response from President Barack Obama. The demands were predictable. Whenever challenges arise, Americans of every stripe and color look to the president to provide decisive leadership and action. Our nation has become increasingly president-centric, in utter disregard of the Constitution and the separation of powers.
The role of the American press in undermining public understanding of the constitutional allocation of powers has been profound. The repeated demands in commentary and editorials for Obama to order missile strikes against the Islamic State have heightened Americans’ expectations that it is the singular responsibility of the chief executive to decide when and where to deploy U.S. military power. Some of the calls frankly reflect a lack of understanding of constitutional arrangements. Others are cynical, seeking partisan advantage. In either case, the citizenry has been misled.
Reporters and commentators throughout the nation need to have a better understanding of the fact that the Constitution vests in Congress, not the president, the sole authority to authorize military strikes. It is as irresponsible for members of the Fourth Estate to demand presidential authorization of military actions as it is to promote executive lawmaking and expenditures from the U.S. Treasury.
Such calls for acts not grounded in the Constitution reflect, again, the urgent need for civic education across America. A citizenry that believes it is the responsibility of the president to solve all problems, foreign and domestic, is a citizenry that soon loses its appreciation for constitutionally limited government. Mindful of this, occupants of the White House, as well as presidential aspirants, will feel increasingly free to ignore constitutional and statutory restraints. The result, as we have witnessed for the past 50 years, is an Imperial Presidency, impervious to laws and indifferent to the separation of powers and checks and balances.
The American people deserve better. Members of Congress eager to sue the president on grounds of violation of the Affordable Health Care Act would have greater credibility if they assumed responsibility for exercising and defending their own constitutional roles and powers, including the greatest power, that of the decision to employ military force. Congressional members who target a statutory provision or two, but ignore fundamental constitutional principles, will rightly be accused of cherry-picking. Presidential accountability can be better achieved through congressional accountability.
And the American press should be better informed. The media, justly protective of the First Amendment guarantee of Freedom of the Press, must not mislead the citizenry into believing that the president is a Universal Providence. How refreshing might it be if a television anchor opened the nightly newscast by asking, “What will Congress do in response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Iraq?” Or, “Will Congress exercise its constitutional authority to order missile strikes against the Islamic State?”
Those questions would reveal an enlightened, but not unreasonable, state of knowledge about a key provision in the Constitution that affects the lives of all Americans. They would also promote congressional accountability to both the Constitution and the American people. As it stands, members of Congress enjoy a free pass on these vital questions of national security. Unleashing the war power requires solemn discussion and debate. Americans have every right to expect members of Congress to assume their institutional and constitutional responsibility to debate America’s response to the threat of the Islamic State.
David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy. He serves on the National Advisory Committee for the Center for Civic Literacy. This post was originally published in the Idaho Statesman on August 14, 2014 and is republished here with the permission of the author.