WAR POWERS by Peter Irons


How the Imperial Presidency Hijacked the Constitution
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Elect a president, get a war.

By the lights of legal scholar Irons (Political Science/Univ. of California, San Diego; A People’s History of the Supreme Court, 1999, etc.), the U.S. has gone to war with a proper, constitutionally watertight declaration five times in its history as against “scores of undeclared wars and military incursions into other nations . . . in places as close as Mexico and as remote as Afghanistan.” The last formal declaration occurred on December 7, 1941, the dawn of the superimperial age of American empire; in the last war, which George W. Bush launched against Iraq, he didn’t bother working the Congress to do that job, as the Constitution demands, but instead announced what he intended and got a green-light resolution, much as his father had done in 1991. Congress gave him what he wanted, Irons asserts, because that’s what Congress does these days; no one wants to make a fuss about constitutional niceties, which is why the Patriot Act sailed through so easily. Incidental to his larger purpose, Irons imagines a scenario in which antiwar protestors are ipso facto declared guilty of domestic terrorism, a prospect that he believes true to “the government’s penchant for stifling legitimate criticism during wartime”; the Supreme Court’s behavior in recent years, he suggests, gives little reason to think that it couldn’t happen. The presidential fiat has long precedent, Irons writes, perhaps most powerfully in Abraham Lincoln’s wartime suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, which in turn afforded Franklin Roosevelt’s government legal authority to round up Japanese American citizens in that last declared war. Irons strikes notes of gloom throughout what is a thought-provoking treatise, observing that John Kerry seems not to have questioned the idea that a president can wing it when it comes to war, and lamenting the outcome of the last election as proof that the American people want their thinking done for them by somebody else—and that they’re happy with the unconstitutional application of American power.

Well reasoned and argued, if unlikely to influence the people who could most stand to read it.

Pub Date: Aug. 5th, 2005
ISBN: 0-8050-7593-3
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2005


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