Not a lot of people know about the so-called “Quasi-War” fought between the United States and France during the John Adams administration, but I think it’s an important episode to recall for the purposes of ongoing debates about the Obama administration’s protestations that the ongoing war in Libya somehow really isn’t a war.
The point isn’t that Obama is right—he’s wrong—but that this is how the game’s always been played. From the administration of the second president ever, we were fighting an undeclared war on presidential authority. And of course Adams’ congressional opponents complained about it. And when they took over the White House, they certainly changed the basic orientation of American foreign policy. But they didn’t really change the practice around this declaration of war business. Instead the new undeclared war was one against Barbary Pirates. Which isn’t to say that congress wasn’t involved in the fight against the pirates. The key point was that congress appropriated funds to send the obtain and dispatch the ships. And from thence onward, despite the fact that we sometimes did get formal declarations of war (World War One and World War Two) and sometimes had a special congressional vote (Gulf War One and Gulf War Two) and sometimes had wars purely on executive recognizance (Civil War, Korea) that congress has always played an important role in the process as the institution that runs the appropriations process.
Which is to say that congressional authorization for the Lincoln administration’s prosecution of a war against the CSA took the form of appropriations and other measures to create the Union Army. And in the case of something like Libya, congressional authorization takes the form of the fact that we just this week had a giant political fight about appropriations in which nobody in the opposition leadership made the slightest gesture in the direction of a “rider” that would prevent the president from prosecuting that war or limiting his discretion in initiating new wars. This is what happens almost every year—congress appropriates funds for a military, and does little to tie the president’s hands in terms of how he uses it. When congress wants to tie the president’s hands—as it did in the seventies when it stopped the Ford administration from continuing involvement in the defense of South Vietnam—congress gets its way. But most of the time congress doesn’t want to tie the president’s hands.