Congress needs to exercise war power to handle North Korea

With the escalating war of words between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, there is now a real danger that the latter, believing that a U.S. decapitating strike is imminent, would launch a preemptive nuclear attack against United States bases or warships.

Trump recently tweeted that Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Supreme Court lets Texas abortion law stand Trump-era ban on travel to North Korea extended Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE should not waste his time trying to talk to North Korea. This followed previous taunts calling Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man,” which led North Korea to state that it reserves the right to “shoot down U.S. strategic bombers,” even outside of North Korea’s airspace. On top of that, the United States flew B1 bombers and F15 fighter jets off North Korea’s coast, flying further north than any flights in recent years.

It’s not inconceivable that the escalating rhetoric could lead to a misunderstanding and a preemptive nuclear strike by North Korea. To prevent this, Congress must exercise its constitutional power over the decision to go to war and make it clear that the United States will not attack first. Congress urgently needs to enact legislation that prohibits the use of funds to launch combat operations against North Korea, unless it specifically authorizes the operations.

Congress normally had declared war before the United States engaged in extended combat operations up until the Korean War in 1950. President Truman responded to the North Korean invasion of the South by going to war without congressional authorization. Congress did not object, and in fact, House and Senate leaders had urged him not to seek congressional approval.

In 1964, Congress enacted the Gulf of Tonkin resolution without extensive hearings or debate. President Johnson, not without reason, believed the resolution granted him authority to conduct sustained and indefinite combat operations in Vietnam. By the early 1970s, Congress sought to regain its constitutional role in U.S. foreign policy by enacting the War Powers Act, which was designed to prevent the president from committing the United States to sustained combat without Congress’s approval.

Ever since, presidents and Congress generally have worked around the War Powers Act, giving the president wide freedom of action. But circumstances today make it imperative that Congress reassert itself. A war on the Korean Peninsula would no doubt end with the complete defeat of the North Korean regime. But the casualties both civilian and military and destruction of civilian property would be far greater than any conflict since World War II.

The consequences of a decision to go to war against North Korea are so far reaching that the choice must be the result of an agreement between the Congress and president. It should follow an extensive public debate, including congressional hearings, both open and closed, before all the relevant congressional committees. Whether the president has the authority on his own to initiate the use of force against North Korea in the absence of an attack from the country, or, at least, the certainty of an imminent attack, is for some a matter of debate.

But it is Article I of the Constitution that assigns Congress the power to declare war, raise revenues through taxation, and support an army and maintain a navy. There is no doubt that Congress has the authority, using the power of the purse, to require its prior approval to take the nation to war against North Korea. Moreover, the need for a serious debate followed by congressional action to stop the president from acting on his own also is underscored by the fact that North Korea could miscalculate and misunderstand what the Trump administration intends to do.

Congressional debate over action to bar the president from going to war without its approval would help reduce the risk of a conventional and nuclear war because it would reassure North Korea that a surprise decapitation attack is not about to happen. In this situation, requiring congressional authorization for such an attack not only upholds the Constitution, it would also reduce the risk of a nuclear war that neither side wants. It’s time for Congress to reassert its role as envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

Morton H. Halperin is a senior advisor to the Open Society Foundations. He served in senior positions on the National Security Council staff, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State under Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Clinton.