Fisher 12—Louis, Scholar in Residence at The Constitution Project; served for four decades at the Library of Congress, as Senior Specialist, Congressional Research Service [“Basic Principles of the War Power,” 2012, Journal of National Security Law & Policy, 5 J. Nat'l Security L. & Pol'y 319]
Article II designates the President as Commander in Chief, but that title does not carry with it an independent authority to initiate war or act free of legislative control. Article II provides that 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." Congress, not the President, does the calling. Article I grants Congress the power to provide "for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections, and repel invasions." Presidential use of the militia depends on policy enacted by Congress.
The Commander in Chief Clause is sometimes interpreted as an exclusive, plenary power of the President, free of statutory checks. It is not. Instead, it offers several protections for republican, constitutional government. Importantly, it preserves civilian supremacy over the military. The individual leading the armed forces is an elected civilian, not a general or admiral. Attorney General Edward Bates in 1861 concluded that the President is Commander in Chief not because he is "skilled in the art of war and qualified to marshal a host in the field of battle." He possesses that title for a different reason. Whatever military officer leads U.S. forces against an enemy, "he is subject to the orders of the civil magistrate, and he and his army are always "subordinate to the civil power.'" n23 Congress is an essential part of that civil power.
The Framers understood that the President may "repel sudden attacks," especially when Congress is out of session and unable to assemble quickly, but the power to take defensive actions does not permit the President to initiate wars and exercise the constitutional authority of Congress. President Washington took great care in instructing his military commanders that operations against Indians were to be limited to defensive actions. n24 Any offensive action required congressional authority. He wrote in 1793: "The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure." n25
[*324] In 1801, President Jefferson directed that a squadron be sent to the Mediterranean to safeguard American interests against the Barbary pirates. On December 8, he informed Congress of his actions, asking lawmakers for further guidance. He said he was "unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense ... ." It was up to Congress to authorize "measures of offense also." n26 In 1805, after conflicts developed between the United States and Spain, Jefferson issued a public statement that articulates fundamental constitutional principles: "Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of changing our condition from peace to war." n27 In the Smith case of 1806, a federal circuit court acknowledged that if a foreign nation invades the United States, the President has an obligation to resist with force. But there was a "manifest distinction" between going to war with a nation at peace and responding to an actual invasion: "In the former case, it is the exclusive province of congress to change a state of peace into a state of war." n28
The second value that the Founders embraced in the Commander-in-Chief Clause is accountability. Hamilton in Federalist No. 74 wrote that the direction of war "most peculiarly demands those qualities which distinguish the exercise of power by a single hand." The power of directing war and emphasizing the common strength "forms ausual and essential part in the definition of the executive authority." n29 Presidential leadershipis essential but it cannot operate outside legislative control. The President is subject to the rule of law, including statutory and judicial restrictions.