Sarah Burns (“The Politics of War Powers”) Q&A

The Constitution of the United States divides war powers between the executive and legislative branches to guard against ill-advised or unnecessary military action. This division of powers compels both branches to hold each other accountable and work in tandem. And yet, since the Cold War, congressional ambition has waned on this front. Even when Congress does provide initial authorization for larger operations, they do not provide strict parameters or clear end dates. As a result, one president after another has initiated and carried out poorly developed and poorly executed military policy. The Politics of War Powers offers a measured, deeply informed look at how the American constitutional system broke down, how it impacts decision-making today, and how we might find our way out of this unhealthy power division.

  1. What’s your elevator pitch for The Politics of War Powers? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?   The book examines the theoretical and historical development of war powers in the United States. I demonstrate how the constitutional system creates an invitation to struggle that the political branches increasingly ignore to the detriment of our foreign policy.

2. What was your inspiration to research and write about the theory and history of presidential unilateralism?  I became interested in this topic when I was in grad school in 2011. In March of that year, Obama decided the United States had to address the humanitarian crisis in Libya by creating a no-fly zone with UN and NATO allies. He sent a letter to Congress claiming that he had the power to do so as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive. He then used evasive words, such as “national security” and “regional stability,” to justify the unilateral initiation of hostilities. More surprising, was the reaction from Members of Congress and Republicans Members in particular. Many in Congress expressed anger at Obama’s unconstitutional actions and yet they failed to do anything to either support or oppose him. They were so undecided that they had votes to support and oppose his actions on the same day. I was intrigued, was this something unique to Obama’s relationship with Congress or was this indicative of a trend?

3. What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book?   Handing in the full manuscript! Besides that, developing a clear thesis that goes through hundreds of years of history was a big lift. I also examined a lot of very well-researched presidents during important wars (such as Abraham Lincoln’s action in the Civil War and Franklin Roosevelt’s action in World War II). Finding a way to make a real contribution was a daunting challenge.

4. Your book  concludes—after tracing changes through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, the Cold War, and the War on Terror—is that presidents now command a dangerous degree of unilateral power. How has that manifested itself in the past 20 years?   What we see in George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump’s administrations is a staggering ability to make unilateral decisions in the realm of foreign policy in general and military operations specifically. If we look at Obama’s and Trump’s decision making when it comes to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, there is not only very little input from Congress, but also very little deliberation or grand strategy. The public lacks good reasons for their unilateral decisions and Congress fails to hold them accountable in a serious way. I would go so far as to say that even when Congress has authorized military operations, as they did against Afghanistan and individual terrorists in 2001 and against Iraq in 2002, they failed to provide guard rails or serious limitations to presidential unilateralism.

5. In your opinion, is there likely to be a swing away from the executive branch wielding unilateral power?   I was slightly hopeful when Trump came to power that we would see a more aggressively assertive legislative branch. I am less hopeful now. In part, due to partisanship and the dramatic increase in polarization, the best we can hope for is that a Congress dominated by the opposing party will hold a president accountable. That’s the best-case scenario. I think we are more likely to see biased or political efforts to tear down the sitting president. I think it’s safe to say people on the left felt that Obama faced a Congress focused on trying to undermine his agenda. I think those who support Trump feel the same.

6. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?   That’s such a hard question! I think the big take away should be how difficult it is to maintain a healthy constitutional system; how easily it can break; and how hard it is to fix it once it’s broken.

7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?   I’d say American voters. The reason we don’t have members of Congress who stand up to the President is because the voters keep letting them get away with it. If we want a more assertive Congress (and we should), we have to be the ones who vote for it.

Sarah Burns is assistant professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology.