Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Delicate Balance

Last night, President Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, as well as a 3 year plan to begin withdrawal in July 2011. Although commonly referred to as the War in Afghanistan, that is technically inaccurate. Under the Constitution, only Congress has the power to declare war, found in Article 1, section 8, and they have done so only 5 times in American history. It may surprise your students that the only officially recognized American wars were the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II.

So what, then, were all the other ‘wars,’ such as the Vietnam War or the Korean War? Under the Constitution, Article II Section 2, the President is the Commander and Chief of the Army and Navy, and therefore in charge of troop placement and movements, Congress on the other hand, can officially declare war, and also controls the purse stings.

Congress has expressly authorized formal military engagements 12 times, which include the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the War in Afghanistan. Other times, the U.S. has engaged in military actions authorized by the United Nations Security Council, such as the Korean War. However, on at least 125 occasions, the President has acted without express military authorization from Congress, including the Philippine-American War and the Indian Wars. Now, your student’s may ask “What about the Civil War?” and here things get a little bit tricky. The Union government never recognized the Confederacy as an independent nation, and saw their succession as illegal, therefore requiring military action to restore the Union. This is all part of the delicate balance the Founding Fathers created in the Constitution. It is all about Checks and Balances.

This is a teachable moment, where you can discuss with your students the idea of Checks and Balances. Discuss with your students why the creators of the Constitution put these limits in place – are they helpful or a hindrance? Would your students change them in any way?

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