Opinio Juris Symposium: A Clarification on the President’s Power to Respond to Attacks

by Michael Ramsey

Professor Lederman asks in a comment to Professor Kent’s post if we could clarify our disagreement on the President’s power to respond to attacks. Briefly, here is how I understand it. I think both of us agree:

(1) That Congress has the ultimate control over the U.S. response to an attack, in that it can limit the response by statute, or simply refuse to approve funding for certain kinds of responses; and

(2) That in the absence of statutory approval the President can “repel sudden attacks” (as Madison said at the Convention) in a defensive manner, at least until Congress acts.

The disagreement is whether the President can direct offensive measures against the attacker. I am not sure what the line between offensive and defensive response would be, but I assume, for example, that attacking the enemy homeland is an offensive response. My view is that the President can make offensive responses, so I don’t need to draw that line; I will leave to Andrew where he would draw it (and how).

Professor Lederman also asks if there are any modern examples where this would have mattered. I think the answer is no, although I may be missing one. In my view, the President’s power of offensive response is triggered only where another entity attacks the U.S. or U.S. forces in such a way to initiate a state of war. (In other words, an isolated engagement, or alleged engagement, is not enough, nor is an attack on an ally). I think one justification offered for the 1989 invasion of Panama was an attack on U.S. troops in Panama, but I am not clear enough on the facts to know if this should count. The only clear modern example that comes to mind is September 11, and that depends on whether one thinks there can be war with a non-state entity like al-Qaeda. Assuming there can be, my view would give the President independent constitutional power to attack al-Qaeda forces in response, as long as he did not create a state of war with any other nation — for example, he could attack al-Qaeda bases in Pakistan with Pakistan’s permission. (Attacking Afghanistan would require congressional approval though). Of course, the President got approval to respond against al-Qaeda, so the point was not raised.


5 Responses

  1. But, assuming the President’s has the power to take offensive/defensive actions in these circumstances do you consider that their are constraints of necessity and proportionality on that Presidential action or is the President free to move to nuclear weapons immediately?



  2. Thanks, Mike. And what about unilateral presidential actions that are not in response to an attack, but that are arguably short of hostilities amounting to war, as OLC argued with respect to Haiti and Bosnia?

  3. Marty — on Bosnia I think the President’s action was fine under the Constitution’s historical meaning, because it did not create a state of war (at least, as I remember the facts, it was a peacekeeping deployment approved by the affected entities). This would be part of the executive power. Haiti, I would say, was not within the President’s power. I know there was a lot of intellectual firepower behind OLC’s memo, but I would have to respectfully disagree that what Clinton proposed to do in Haiti did not count as a war. The project was to use military force to remove a de facto existing government and replace it with one more to the U.S.’s liking. I think that would count as a war in eighteenth-century terms, albeit perhaps a quick and easy one. (And, except for some facts on the ground that made execution more difficult, Bush’s initial project in Iraq was pretty much the same concept). War, according to Samuel Johnson (1755) is the use of sovereign force against resistance. It didn’t turn on how effective the resistance was likley to be.

    Ben — in my framework, the constraints would come from international law, through either Article VI (if reflected in a treaty) or Article II, Section 3 (for non-treaty law). The declare-war clause wouldn’t pose any constraints though, because it wouldn’t be implicated.

    Best regards


  4. For what it’s worth, here’s some of the OLC rationale on why the Haiti invasion was not a war. (The Opinion also concluded, in the alternative, that the invasion had been legislatively authorized.)

    The planned deployment was to take place with the full consent of the legitimate government, and did not involve the risk of major or prolonged hostilities or serious casualties to either the United States or Haiti.

    * * * *

    We are not suggesting, however, that the United States cannot be said to engage in “war” whenever it deploys troops into a country at the invitation of that country’s legitimate government. Rather, we believe that “war” does not exist where United States troops are deployed at the invitation of a fully legitimate government in circumstances in which the nature, scope, and duration of the deployment are such that the use of force involved does not rise to the level of “war.”

    In deciding whether prior Congressional authorization for the Haitian deployment was constitutionally necessary, the President was entitled to take into account the anticipated nature, scope and duration of the planned deployment, and in particular the limited antecedent risk that United States forces would encounter significant armed resistance or suffer or inflict substantial casualties as a result of the deployment. [FN: Although the President found that the deployment would not be without risk, he and his senior advisers had also determined that the United States would introduce a force of sufficient size to deter armed resistance by the Haitian military and thus to hold both United States and Haitian casualties to a minimum. The fact that the United States planned to deploy up to 20,000 troops is not in itself dispositive on the question whether the operation was a “war” in the constitutional sense, since the very size of the force was designed to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of armed resistance.]

    Indeed, it was the President’s hope, since vindicated by the event, that the Haitian military leadership would agree to step down before exchanges of fire occurred. Moreover, while it would not be appropriate here to discuss operational details, other aspects of the planned deployment, including the fact that it would not involve extreme use of force, as for example preparatory bombardment, were also relevant to the judgment that it was not a “war.”

  5. Mike thanks for that clarification.

    On the OLC arguments, I regret that they do not discuss why this would not be aggressive war (whatever the Congressional authorization aspect).

    I think the consent of the government in exile (called the legitimate government) would be the key.

    I vaguely remember that external means of self-determination such as armed conflict were only permitted when internal self-determination was prohibited. So the military coup regime would have a significant question as to its relative legitimacy vis-a-vis the prior regime (called the legitimate government by OLC) that had been elected and had been recognized by a great number of states (evidence of legitimacy). I think the lack of recognition by many states of the defacto government would also lend credence to the idea of this being an action that was with consent of the legitimate government and not aggressive war.

    I think that the President was playing games with the term “war” as to the declare-war clause to stretch a bit. I am not sure what the magic number is but the word “invasion” sure sounds like a war of the armed conflict variety whether or not the other side surrenders right away or fights to the death.



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