Book Review: War Powers by Peter Irons

War Powers – How the Imperial Presidency Hijacked the Constitution. Peter Irons.  Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company.  N.Y. 2005. 303 p.

One of the requisites of any good presentation or argument is that the introduction and conclusion say essentially the same thing and that in between there is ample support for that point of view.  Peter Irons has done just that remarkably well with War Powers, stating in his introduction “the imperial presidency has hijacked the Constitution, to serve the interests of the American empire.”  After carefully presented arguments and examples, following sequentially through the course of American history, he concludes in saying, “the major conclusion of this book is that the presidency as an office and institution has become more important than the presidents themselves.”  This had me a touch confused at first until he clarified it with two other statements (combined here) that “the imperatives of the American empire…the demands of corporate and financial institutions for access to resources and markets…have forced the presidents to don the uniform of commander in chief and take unilateral action to protect those imperial interests.”   From a perspective that I fully believe in from the information from many American sources, he is correct, in that no person could ever even become president, or even become close to being considered for president, if they did not have all the right corporate, financial, and military connections and experiences. 

The author’s intention to make the book directed to American citizens “without having to master scholarly jargon or deal with overheated rhetoric” is well fulfilled.  More than that, it also provides an effective summary history of American foreign policy from the ‘birth’ of the nation (a somewhat troubled affair among bratty siblings it would seem) through to the Bush government as it operated immediately before the 2004 elections.  He recognizes, without detailing (not needed as many others have done that), the ongoing involvement of government-corporate-military empire building throughout this time as well, starting with the ongoing conflicts with Britain and France on the new frontier and then further west with the set-up of pretexts for attacks on Mexican territory.

The work then is an effective mix of three general topics: the law and the constitution; foreign policy; and the rise of empirical forces.  The core of it all is the first, dealing with the power of Congress quite simply “To declare war” and “To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces”, relatively clear and broad statements giving congress the power over the presidency.  For the presidency, “The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States.”  There are other statements concerning legislative powers and executive abilities that are somewhat open, leaving their interpretation to the courts.  Within that, Irons finds a “compliant” judiciary from which it is “simply not realistic to expect that judges will do what Congress has been unwilling to do, in reversing the precedent and momentum of presidential war making.” 

In the later part of the book, the UN comes into the discussion as a mechanism for avoiding asking congress to declare war.  Using the UN as cover, the United States entered into major operations overseas without Congressional approval (as compared to smaller operations such as Grenada and Panama), those operations involving North Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

I found this situation analysis ironic in light of the current U.S. representative to the UN John Bolton and his comments about the UN and constitutional authority for rule of law.  His contempt for the UN is well known and includes direct statements about its uselessness, and many statements about how it can work for the U.S. “The United Nations can be a useful instrument in the conduct of American foreign policy” but that “No one…should be under any illusions that American support for the United Nations as one of several options for implementing American foreign policy translates into unlimited support for the world organization”

The most recent actions concerning the UN and North Korea over its fizzled nuclear test are further indications of the contradictions in Bolton’s position that the UN is a “useful instrument in the conduct of American foreign policy.”  While the U.S. can ignore any UN resolutions that go against its wishes, and can abrogate and ignore international treaties, China must behave differently: “…Bolton, said he expected China to at least monitor goods entering and leaving North Korea over the land border because Beijing voted for the resolution.  They are bound by this resolution.  I can’t believe that China won’t adhere to obligations that the Security Council has imposed."   It would be appreciated globally if the U.S. would do the same. 

At the same time, Bolton has had a significant impact on American unilateral decisions that abrogate or cancel many international agreements that would be of great benefit to the world at large. The executive presidential position “shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties,” but does not say anything about cancelling the same.  Bolton’s view of international law is the nonsensical statement, “Treaties are law only for U.S. domestic purposes. In their international operation, treaties are simply political obligations.”   In Irons perception “there is…little question that presidents and their subordinates are bound by the provisions of international laws and treaties that provide for humane treatment of people captured on the battlefield or in theaters of war.”

The current Bush presidency has managed to get around the issue of international law and torture with the recent passage of the Military Commissions Act.  Its impact is far reaching as it  “limits the ability to obtain an independent probe of alleged abusive treatment, including torture…. bars judges from hearing detainee lawsuits…. It says no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to consider a writ of habeas corpus or any other action by a non-US citizen detained by the US as an enemy combatant.”   Amnesty International describes it as turning “bad executive policy into bad law.”    There is both strong support and strong opposition to the act, and as indicated by U.S. Senator Russell Feingold, it “is unacceptable, and it almost surely violates our Constitution. But that determination will take years of protracted litigation.”  It would also appear that Peter Irons will certainly have much more to write about in the next few years.

Bolton and the Military Commissions Act are obviously not in Irons work, as they are both more current events, nor should I dare write the next section for him, but they are certainly aspects he would have to consider in any future edition.  With Congress having only 1 percent of the military budget, with media bias, with “both momentum and precedent, to which Congress has responded with blank-check authorizations,” and with an acquiescent judicial, the future will not turn quickly. Bolton’s policies and the UN comments are indicators that Irons is correct when he says there will be no quick fix to the problem, that “those who wish to return the power to Congress must adopt a long-range strategy, one based on slow incremental grassroots activism that marked the civil rights movement in its struggle against Jim Crow laws.” 

War Powers is a clear and succinct summary of the legal and constitutional aspect of the American empire.  Unfortunately it seems there will be room for much more discussion in the future.


[1] Bolton, John.  “America’s Scepticism About the United Nations”

[2] Lauria, Joe.  UN panel approves N. Korea sanctions, October 15, 2006. The Boston Globe.

[3] Bosco, David. “The World According to Bolton,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2005  pp. 24-31 (vol. 61, no. 04).

[4] Richey, Warren.  “New lawsuits challenge Congress’s detainee act.” Christian Science Monitor.  October 6, 2006. 

[5] United States of America Military Commissions Act of 2006 – Turning bad policy into bad law. 29 September, 2006.

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