Clinton’s Legacy: Another Imperial Presidency

January 20, 2001 • Commentary

As President Clinton’s tenure ends, pundits are trying to define the “Clinton Legacy.” Many have focused on the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment, but Clinton may find his legacy in a less sordid but no less shameful aspect of his presidency: his abuse of executive authority in foreign affairs.

Undeclared wars and contempt for constitutional limits on presidential power mark Clinton’s foreign policy. Future historians may well remember Clinton as the man who ensured that the “Imperial Presidency” would not vanish with the end of the Cold War.

In his 1973 book coining that phrase, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. warned that America’s rise to Cold War leadership had transformed America’s chief executive into a sort of elected emperor. As Schlesinger explained, though the framers had assigned the power to declare war to Congress, a succession of presidents through the latter half of the 20th Century had arrogated that power to themselves.

Despite his antiwar background, Clinton adopted a Nixonian view of presidential power. From the threatened invasion of Haiti in 1994 to the cluster‐​bomb humanitarianism of the war on Serbia in 1999, Clinton treated the constitutional command that Congress alone can declare war with less respect than the Imperial Presidents that preceded him. President Reagan’s attack on Grenada and President Bush’s invasion of Panama were undeclared wars, but they had the constitutional fig leaf of the need for surprise. Clinton’s conduct has been more brazen.

With 1994’s Haiti intervention, Clinton stood ready to launch a 20,000-troop invasion, while asserting that he did not need congressional authorization to do so. In Serbia, the air war from March to June 1999 represented the largest commitment of American military personnel and materiel since the Persian Gulf War.

Nonetheless, Clinton refused to go to Congress for a declaration of war. Indeed, administration officials would not admit that the bombing campaign over Serbia was a war. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart made that clear in an April 1999 exchange with a reporter:

Q: Is the President ready to call this a low‐​grade war?
Lockhart: No. Next question.

Q: Why not?
Lockhart: Because we view it as a conflict.

Q: How can you say that it’s not war?
Lockhart: Because it doesn’t meet the definition as we define it.

Apparently, it depends on what your definition of “war” is.

And then there were the attacks known as the “Wag the Dog” bombings. The first came in the August 1998 missile strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan, three days after Clinton’s grand jury testimony and in the midst of a media firestorm over his televised non‐​apology for the Lewinsky affair. The administration has refused to release the evidence it claims to have relied on for its assertions that the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant made nerve gas and that its owner was linked to terrorist Osama Bin Laden.

The second “Wag the Dog” bombing occurred on the eve of the House impeachment debate when the president ordered air strikes on Iraq. Attempting to explain the curious timing of the attack, Clinton asserted that “we had to act and act now [because] without a strong inspections system, Iraq would be free to retain and begin to rebuild its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs—in months, not years.” As a result of the president’s action, we’ve since gone two years without any weapons inspections.

The timing of Clinton’s actions gave rise to suspicion that he was applying a chillingly literal version of Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means. That sort of suspicion was by no means alien to our Constitution’s framers. As Madison put it, if the power to declare war had been vested in the president rather than Congress, “the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man.”

Indeed, no one man should be entrusted with the power to lead the nation into war. The Constitution rightly vests Congress with the power to declare war. The Clinton years have made clear how important it is for Congress to reclaim that power.

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