"War Powers: How the Imperial Presidency Hijacked the Constitution" by Peter Irons Metropolitan, 303 pp., $26 The Constitution says, "Congress...

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“War Powers: How the Imperial Presidency Hijacked the Constitution”
by Peter Irons
Metropolitan, 303 pp., $26

The Constitution says, “Congress shall have the power … to declare war.” In modern practice, it is presidents who make the decisions to commit American forces abroad. How that changed is recounted here by Peter Irons, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

Irons’ politics lean left; his book is part of the American Empire Project, which involves Noam Chomsky. Yet in analyzing the Constitution, on this issue at least, his method is more akin to the favorite justice of the right, Clarence Thomas, who argues that the Constitution should mean today what it meant to the people who wrote it.

To the Framers, Irons writes, “declare war” meant starting a war.

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“War Powers” begins at the Constitutional Convention and proceeds in chronological order. Here is World War I, which Irons says the United States had “no compelling reason to enter,” and the Mexican War, which he calls “the first major exercise of presidential warmaking.” Here are also some less familiar undeclared conflicts, such as Thomas Jefferson’s drubbing of the Barbary pirates and Woodrow Wilson’s occupation of the Mexican city of Veracruz.

The book is written for a nonacademic audience and is broad rather than deep. Irons is a lawyer — he wrote “A People’s History of the Supreme Court” — and is most interested in legal cases in which presidential acts have been challenged in court. He describes cases over Abraham Lincoln’s trials of civilians by military tribunal, Woodrow Wilson’s jailing of draft protesters, Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans and Harry Truman’s seizure of the steel mills. Acts not challenged get less attention. FDR’s undeclared war against Germany in 1941 on the North Atlantic, and his executive order in 1940 to swap U.S. Navy ships for rights to use British bases, were important exercises of war powers, but are given just two paragraphs.

The picture that emerges from Irons’ history is of an “imperial presidency” that took temporary form under Lincoln and Wilson, and “took full shape” under FDR. Roosevelt, he says, “thumbed his nose at the Constitution” and is to be blamed for the internment of the Japanese Americans. Presidents have since apologized for that, but the many powers FDR added to the office have been fortified and exercised by Democrats and Republicans alike, including George W. Bush.

For those who would return the war power to the hands of Congress, Irons’ history of the War Powers Resolution of 1973 is particularly disheartening. Meant to limit presidential power to send troops abroad, this post-Vietnam law, says Irons, “has been simply ignored by every president … since its enactment.”

Irons does see some hope in the 2004 Supreme Court cases over the indefinite detention of “enemy combatants.” He calls the Supreme Court’s rulings “the sharpest blow to the imperial presidency” since the 1952 steel mills case. But they hardly amounted to a knockout punch, because the war power has not been restored to Congress. In 2004, George Bush and John Kerry, for all their differences over the conquest and occupation of Iraq, Irons writes, “shared an imperial vision of presidential power.”

Irons uses the word “imperial” loosely as part of a political viewpoint that is assumed rather than argued. The reader may accept it or not. The main story, about the flexing and buildup of presidential muscle, is tied more closely to facts and cases. For those who care for the Constitution as written by the Founders, it is not a happy tale.