The Loyal Opposition Goes AWOL

Joyce Appleby is professor emerita at UCLA and co-director of the History News Service

The Bush Doctrine of preventive war is the most radical foreign policy initiative since the Spanish-American War. And how has Congress, charged by the Constitution with overseeing foreign policy, responded?

It hasn’t. Last October, a majority in both houses of Congress voted for the resolution to give the president the go-ahead to use force in Iraq. Then and since, lawmakers have failed to do their constitutional duty of oversight of such military action.

President Bush’s single-minded pursuit of regime change in Iraq during the last 15 months would not have surprised the unsentimental 18th century creators of our government. They expected the executive to pursue his foreign policy goals. What they would not have foreseen was Congress’ supine acceptance of the president’s usurpation of their constitutional authority to declare war and approve peace treaties.

It has not always been thus. Foreign policy concerns prompted the first criticisms of President Washington just five years after the ratification of the Constitution. In 1793, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and his closest ally, congressional leader James Madison, recoiled at the indifference of Washington’s Federalist Party to the struggle of French republicans to secure their revolution against the combined forces of the crowned heads of Europe. While Washington steered a cautious course toward neutrality, the Jeffersonians railed at his capitulation to their old enemy, Britain.


This was entirely appropriate. The founders divided war-making powers in the Constitution, naming the president commander in chief of the U.S. military forces and giving Congress the sole authority to declare war.

This division lodged command with a single officer while leaving Congress to deliberate over when and if to declare war -- because the lawmakers represented those who would bear the burdens of fighting. Similarly, peacemaking was divided between the treaty-making of the president and the treaty-approving authority of the Senate.

The founders divided powers in the Constitution so that the executive, legislative and judicial branches might check each other. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” Madison wrote in Federalist 51.

That balance has been evident throughout our history. While President McKinley sought guidance from God about taking the Philippines in the Spanish-American War, Democratic members of Congress led by William Jennings Bryan prayed that the U.S., once itself a colony, would not acquire colonies of its own. Nevertheless, McKinley took the Philippines.


Twenty years later, President Wilson provoked congressional opposition when he brought back the Versailles Treaty, which ended World War I and launched the League of Nations. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.), fulminating against compromising of national sovereignty, put together a formidable opposition that ultimately resulted in Senate disapproval in 1919.

Explanations abound as to why Congress has failed to exercise its constitutional authority in the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But few would deny that a loyal opposition is needed more than ever today, as a president with a wind at his back and little ballast sails into new diplomatic waters.

What might an alternative foreign policy, championed by Congress, look like?

It could begin with the premise, shared by the administration, that the inordinate power of the U.S. gives it unique concerns that other nations do not have, both as a target of hostility and a possessor of military might. This recognition could lead to the frank admission that we will act on our own, if need be. “If need be” would be the anchor of an oppositional group that sought ways to avoid future unilateral, preemptive strikes.

Congress could insist on strengthening existing alliances, bolstering multilateral agreements and monitoring trouble spots, whether generated by famine, autocratic governments or handicaps in global commerce. It could lead world debate on health, birth control and sweat labor. It could articulate those venerable principles of American foreign policy that run counter to the radical bellicosity implicit in the Bush Doctrine.

Nothing can replace an opposition crafted within the walls of Congress, where constitutional authority over war and peace still lodges.