Even Presidents Who Consult Congress Can Get into Trouble

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Mr. Filipink is Visiting Instructor at SUNY Fredonia.

Over the past several weeks, the Bush administration has indicated its intention to intervene in Iraq to oust the regime of Saddam Hussein. These indications have been met with calls from leaders in both parties to seek prior approval for action, or at least to consult with Congress before acting. Unfortunately, there are no consistent lessons or precedents to indicate whether such consultation would enhance the likelihood of success, nor is there agreement on whether such consultation is necessary. Seeking congressional input for foreign policy endeavors has a mixed history during the latter half of the twentieth century. Presidents have tended to use congressional consultation more often for political and diplomatic tools than as a necessary preliminary step for military intervention. Within the narrow confines of an op-ed, I would like to discuss a couple examples of a president's use of congressional authorization for action to demonstrate the issue is not as simple as it seems. Then I would like to briefly contrast two presidents whose approaches to Congress do not lead to the results expected by advocates of congressional consultation.

President Dwight Eisenhower on two occasions sought prior authorization for military action from a Democratically-controlled Congress. In neither case were Eisenhower's intentions as clear as the language he sent to Congress for approval. In 1955, in the context of increasing military pressure on Taiwan by the People's Republic of China, after some debate in the Senate, Congress approved the Formosa Resolution, which authorized the President to intervene to protect Formosa, the Pescadores, and any other territories necessary to defend Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist regime. With this authorization in hand, Eisenhower, despite some loose talk about his willingness to use nuclear weapons, refused to commit to the defense of the Nationalist-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu, ultimately taking no military intervention at all. For Eisenhower, the Resolution was a means of maintaining flexibility to act if necessary and to keep the Chinese guessing about American intentions, a diplomatic rather than military tool. Once the Resolution was in hand, Eisenhower demurred from specifying at any point what he was willing to do or to defend, allowing the crisis to die down on its own. Having secured his congressional flank, Eisenhower sought no further input and reacted to the situation at hand.

On the other hand, in 1957, Eisenhower sought and received congressional approval for American intervention in the Middle East. The Eisenhower Doctrine, as it became known, authorized the President to use military force if any Middle Eastern government requested protection against "overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism." In this case, a proactive Eisenhower sought to use this authorization throughout 1957, finally intervening in Lebanon in 1958, although not for the reasons outlined in the Doctrine. Eisenhower's primary justification for dispatching 14,000 marines to Lebanon that July was to intimidate Arab nationalists led by Egyptian leader Gamel Abdul Nasser. In this case, Eisenhower felt a demonstration of American power and will would deter Arab nationalists from threatening "moderate" Arab regimes in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, not to mention Lebanon. Again, once congressional authorization was secured, Congress played no role in Eisenhower's deliberations. The obvious lack of communist presence in Lebanon did not deter Eisenhower from using the approval as he saw fit.

Eisenhower's successor, John Kennedy, provides an example of a president who rarely consulted with Congress. Prior to the Bay of Pigs debacle, only one member of Congress was in any way consulted. Although Cuba remained a central issue for the remainder of his presidency, Kennedy ignored a congressional resolution passed in September 1962 calling for the direct elimination of the Castro regime, preferring instead to pursue the covert activities of Operation Mongoose. During the crisis over Berlin, Kennedy's consultations were limited to requesting and receiving two increases in defense spending. Finally, the Cuban Missile Crisis, arguably the most dangerous crisis of the Cold War, saw the president meet with congressional leaders only once, to inform them of his decision to blockade the island and pursue gradual escalation. All other decisions during and after the crisis were made within the Executive Branch. Despite this record of non-consultation and constant crisis, Kennedy is considered by most Americans (although not necessarily most historians) to have been a successful foreign policy president.

Lyndon Johnson's consultation with Congress prior to the Vietnam War, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964, on the other hand, wins him no praise. Indeed, although in the short term it protected Lyndon Johnson from Vietnam as a campaign issue and from a Truman-like loss of congressional support for military action in Asia, in the long run it was insufficient protection from both congressional and public questioning of the war in Vietnam. Johnson was (and is) roundly pilloried for not being entirely honest with Congress regarding his intentions in Southeast Asia. However, the wording of the resolution is almost identical to the one approved for Eisenhower a decade earlier. In fact, the use of American forces had already begun in the Kennedy administration (without congressional approval). Yet, Johnson is considered a failure as a foreign policy president.

Consultation with Congress does not guarantee success or support; it does not guarantee action on the part of the president; it does not guarantee that the president will do what Congress has authorized him to do. It does, however, provide the president with a potentially valuable tool for dealing with domestic political dissent and/or with foreign friends and enemies.

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Donald A. Ritchie - 9/5/2002

It should be noted that the 87th Congress adjourned on October 13, 1962, and the Kennedy administration did not receive confirmation of Soviet missiles in Cuba until October 16. Congressional leaders were summoned back to Washington, where they met with President Kennedy on October 19, and most of those who attended the meeting recommended a military invasion of Cuba rather than a blockade.

don kates - 9/3/2002

Despite the apologetics of his idolators, it is clear that JFK, profoundly influenced by the "Democrats-are-soft-on-Communism- Truman-lost-China" rhetoric of the late 1940s and '50s, was determinedly going to pursue exactly the same policies in Vietnam as those which brought LBJ down. Tragic though it was for him and his family, JFK ironically owes his wholly undeserved positive reputation as president to the marksmanship of Lee Harvey Oswald. Indeed the speech JFK was going to deliver that day in Dallas reaffirmed his intention to stay in Vietnam despite early complaints from Democrats far to his left.