Waging War: The Clash Between Presidents and Congress, 1776 to ISIS, by David J. Barron, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016, $30
U.S. Circuit Court Judge Barron is a recent former Department of Justice official who wrote a controversial legal memo justifying drone strikes against American citizens, specifically radical Islamic terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, without judicial process. Ironically, drone strikes are a presidential military action not specifically mentioned in this book, a reworked, less-partisan treatment of two lengthy academic articles Barron co-authored that were critical of the George W. Bush administration’s use of force.
Barron’s primary argument is that U.S. presidents have operated under congressional restrictions, finding ways to cope or work around them. Neither branch of government has overwhelmed the other but continue an unresolved power struggle subject to an enduring system of checks and balances. He chronicles the evolving relationship of the commander in chief—from George Washington to Barack Obama—with the legislative branch (Congress), in charge of oversight and funding, and the judicial branch (Supreme Court), as a counter to questionable executive actions.
The first example he provides is debate over whether to destroy New York City in 1776 rather than let it fall to the British, something Washington unsuccessfully urged Congress to approve and for which he was unwilling to take sole responsibility. Other incidents illustrate fears of a potential “man on horseback” resisting presidential command authority, congressional overreach and presidential excess, epitomized, respectively, by General Andrew Jackson’s illegal imposition of martial law in New Orleans in 1815, Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment in the context of Reconstruction, and Bush’s plans for preemptive strikes on potential enemies after the 9/11 attacks.
Unfortunately, Barron fails to mention many other illustrative examples, including Thomas Jefferson’s war against Barbary pirates, James Monroe’s seizure of Florida, Woodrow Wilson’s incursions into Mexico, Harry S. Truman’s removal of Douglas MacArthur from Korea, John Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, and the aforementioned drone strikes, a hallmark of Obama’s military action. Waging War is thus an accessible albeit incomplete reference.
—William John Shepherd