The Media Notion of President's Ultimate War Power

by Norman Solomon, Creators Syndicate, July 21, 2007

Days before an all-night session of the Senate failed to result in passage of an out-of-Iraq measure last Wednesday morning, President Bush told a news conference: "I don't think Congress ought to be running the war."

Such assertions often proliferate in news media. Many politicians and pundits encourage us to believe that we should defer to presidential power as the proper way to determine foreign policies in general and war policy in particular.

Those claims are routine from loyal partisans who back the president as the head of their party. Respecting the authority of the man in the Oval Office has been thematic for officeholders who reinforce the concept that the president is the decider for war and peace. Frequently, the message is that members of Congress who say otherwise are interlopers.

David Brooks — who writes a syndicated New York Times column and serves as a regular commentator on the PBS "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and other TV programs — is among the many commentators who keep trying to reinforce the notion that the president is the boss. "The Constitution gives the president power to wage war and really to manage this thing," Brooks said on CNN's "Reliable Sources" in late May.

Brooks was echoing a long line of mainstream journalists who have distorted what the United States Constitution actually says about presidential power to wage war. The president is not the legislative branch's "commander in chief." The extensive list of congressional powers enumerated in the Constitution includes basic decision-making on military matters. And most importantly, Congress has the undisputed right to decide whether to pay for a war effort — or to end it by refusing to appropriate money for it.

More than 40 years ago, a widely esteemed journalist named Peter Lisagor was making the same kind of dubious claims on network television. As the moderator of the CBS program "Face the Nation," Lisagor told a guest: "Senator, the Constitution gives to the president of the United States the sole responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy."

A reply came in a split second from the guest, Senator Wayne Morse.
"Couldn't be more wrong," he shot back — "you couldn't make a more unsound legal statement than the one you have just made. This is the promulgation of an old fallacy that foreign policy belongs to the president of the United States. That's nonsense."

Lisagor replied with a key question: "Then to whom does it belong, then, Senator?"

Again, Morse didn't hesitate. "It belongs to the American people," the senator fired back, "and the Constitutional fathers made it very clear —"

Journalist Lisagor interrupted: "Where does the president fit into this in the responsibility scale?"

"What I'm saying is under our constitution all the president is, is the administrator of the people's foreign policy, those are his prerogatives, and I'm pleading that the American people be given the facts about foreign policy —

"You know, Senator, that the American people cannot formulate and execute foreign policy —"

"Why you're a man of little faith in democracy if you make that kind of comment," Morse retorted. "I have complete faith in the ability of the American people to follow the facts if you'll give them, and my charge against my government is we're not giving the American people the facts."

Believe it or not, that exchange on CBS Television occurred in May 1964 — more than two months before the Gulf of Tonkin resolution sailed through Congress on the basis of presidential lies about a supposed unprovoked attack on U.S. ships in the Tonkin Gulf. That resolution served as a congressional green light for massive escalation of the Vietnam War.

More than four decades later, the war debates on the Senate floor are sharpening. But for several years they have wandered along the dull edges of political evasion and obfuscation.

With rare exceptions, even the most vociferous war opponents of today were unwilling to challenge the president's war-making dominance over policy in 2003 and 2004. Like the pundits whose slings and arrows they fear, the vast majority of senators have fallen far short of the standards set by Senator Wayne Morse, a truly visionary leader whose prophetic warnings went unheeded.

Norman Solomon's latest book, "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death," is now available in paperback. To find out more about Norman Solomon and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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