College of William and Mary President Taylor Reveley spoke to Marshall-Wyth School of Law students Wednesday concerning presidential war powers.
The student division of the Institute of the Bill of Rights Law hosted the talk, which focused on Reveley’s work with the War Powers Commission and the recent proposal of a new statute that would replace the War Powers Resolution of 1973.
This statute, Reveley said, would hopefully solve the ongoing struggle between Congress and the president over war powers, and facilitate a meaningful dialogue between the two branches of government.
The commission was headed by former Secretaries of State James Baker and Warren Christopher; Reveley served as co-director. The College president is a nationally recognized expert on war powers and has written a book entitled “War Powers of the President and Congress: Who Holds the Arrows and Olive Branch?”
Reveley said he became particularly interested in war powers when he was in his last term of law school. At the time, he was taking a class in which he was researching the “constitutional law of the presidency.” Finding this topic too broad, he narrowed it down to a hypothetical theory concerning the issues of war powers during the Vietnam War.
Years later, he found himself serving on the bipartisan War Powers Commission, working to bring together the president and Congress in a meaningful way to make decisions about war and peace.
Reveley summarized the process by which policy questions must be evaluated. He emphasized three critical phases of policy questions that the commission must consider when determining who should decide war and peace policies: initiation of the conflict, conduct during the war, and how to go about its termination.
He also discussed what is or is not a legitimate reason to initiate a conflict, referencing the current war in Iraq.
According to Reveley, the United States usually justifies the initiation of wars based on the necessity of responding to external attacks. The Iraq War was an aberration from this trend in that the initiation was for purposes of regime change, promoting democracy in the Middle East and preventing terrorism.
Later, in response to a student’s question about the scale of the alleged illegality or lack of authorization for initiating the war in Iraq, he said that this war was “child’s play in comparison to Vietnam.”
Considering the failures of the Iraq war, the question then becomes: Who decides, in the 21st century, what a legitimate reason for initiation is? The debate surrounding this question, the president said, is fierce.
Reveley pointed out four factors that have shaped the debate of the Constitution’s meaning: What does the text say? What were the purposes of our Constitutional fathers? How have Constitutional beliefs about war powers changed since 1789? Despite what the intentions were of the authors of the Constitution, how have war powers actually been divided between Congress and the president?
These were just some of the issues that the commission considered. They worked for 13 months, reading “a great deal” and “listening to experts.” Reveley, however, reiterated several times that they were not trying to solve Constitutional issues, but rather were concerned with promoting dialogue between the president and Congress.
The statute will not be easy to pass, he said.
“The [National War Powers Commission] report will have to survive assault from hardcore presidential positions and Congressional positions,” Reveley said. “Of course, I like the report.”
Reveley expressed the hope that the statute would resolve the “rotten marriage” between Congress and the president and would make Congress more active in the decisions of war powers.
“Congress prefers to let the president take the leap himself,” Reveley said. “In this way, they can avoid taking the blame if anything goes wrong.”
Nonetheless, Reveley said he is somewhat confident that if the statute were to pass, President-elect Barack Obama would have the “temperament” to give it a try.