In my musings on the Constitution, I used to grapple with the idea that the executive needs more powers (than Constitutionally granted) to be able to strike quickly and effectively at our enemies. Having to wait for Congress to declare war in these situations would not seem prudent. This power is also deemed necessary particularly because secrecy in such operations can be deemed paramount.
However, these observations depend entirely on the necessity and propriety of preemptive/preventative war. This is why some say we needed the War Powers Resolution which allows the president to undertake such operations as necessity would dictate, with certain limits. But these views are not compatible with a free nation. A free nation cannot be an aggressor in an armed conflict, nor can it participate in preemptive war if it is to stand on any kind of moral high ground. When would it ever be necessary for us to preemptively invade a country that has not attacked us? The only situation that would make sense would be if a country declared war on us, but has yet to actually attack us. In that situation, some may rightfully consider the declaration itself as an act of war. Save that, it can never be necessary. The thought that the president should be able to command troops that will partake in aggressive operations is something any peaceful citizen should scoff at. An executive with the powers to attack other countries free from restiction is only necessary for a country that believes it needs to be the policeman of the world or has imperialist aspirations. Frankly, I believe we are grossly over-policed at home and it is not something we should be proud of, nor should we be foolhardy enough to attempt the same thing abroad, funded by the already overburdened U.S. taxpayer. Asserting that we need these powers in the event an attack is imminent opens up the door to abuses. What does imminent mean? Ultimately, it means whatever the executive will decide. It opens the door to propaganda campaigns by the government to convince the American public that we are actually facing an imminent threat; like has happened with Iraq and the Weapons of Mass Destruction and is happening currently with Iran. See here, here and here
Any man of candor will admit that the continental United States will never be in danger of being invaded. The last time it was invaded was in the War of 1812 by the British. Any nation would be foolish to attempt it. We have the strongest military in the world, the largest active nuclear arsenal, and we spend more militarily than the next 19 nations in the world combined. Anyone who believes the U.S. is in danger of being attacked by a foreign government is either insincere, or downright stupid. If we are that worried about being attacked, we should bring all our troops home to defend our boarders rather than stationing them in hundreds of bases around the world; our country would be impregnable.
A free nation should have the ability to vigorously defend itself but it should not have the power vested unchecked in the Executive to send troops all over the world attacking nations that have not attacked us. This makes us less safe and perpetuates the unflattering view of Americans as ‘Cowboys‘.
The President (pick any recent one) would have us believe that a declaration of war is a thing of the past and an obstruction to our self-defense. But what relation does preventative war have to self-defense? None. In the unlikely situation we were ever invaded by a foreign army, it is not as if our armed forces would sit there twiddling their thumbs, unable to defend the country without a declaration of war. The reality is the armed forces are capable of acting autonomously, and don’t need the command of a President to be able to effectively coordinate their strategic decisions in a national emergency of that sort. Did the soldiers that were attacked at Pearl Harbor need to wait for Congress to declare war before they started shooting back at the Japanese planes? No. In the face of an invasion, necessity and propriety will drive the armed forces to defend American territory and fight back when their own lives are at stake. Further, in this day and age, Congress could be convened very rapidly, if necessary, to declare war so this supposed need for these extra executive powers is even more fruitless than when these powers were first proposed (usurped).
Not only can we say that these powers are unnecessary for self-defense, our own foreign aggression subjects us to many problems. In cases of self-defense against an invader, every time we shoot at the opposition, we can be sure the action is justified; they have aggressed on us and invaded our country. When we aggress on others and invade their country, any shot we take or bomb we use has the potential to kill innocent citizens. If we are to be considered a free country, our respect for human life must be second to none; thus we see how American intervention threatens our core values. America must be anti-interventionist if we are to ever again to become the example of a free nation everyone wants to emulate.
As unlikely as these sources seem, some presidents have spoke out against preemptive war and executive power (I somehow doubt whether Abraham Lincoln actually believed what he was saying, though):
Lincoln: “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion… and you allow him to make war at pleasure… If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him,–’I see no probability of the British invading us’; but he will say to you, ‘Be silent: I see it, if you don’t.'”
Eisenhower: ” Preventive war was an invention of Hitler. Frankly, I would not even listen to anyone seriously that came and talked about such a thing.”
P.S. I see preventative war as a general symptom of preemption prevalent in many aspects of society. For example, when we consider someone who has been drinking and driving, but not hurt anyone else, as a criminal deserving of punishment, or someone who has taken drugs or smoked marijuana as a criminal because someone on drugs might be more likely to commit crimes, etc. we are preempting any actual crime; we are preempting anyone actually being harmed in their person or property, despite the distinct possibility or even likelihood that no actual harm will even be committed, even in the remote future. It is nanny state policy applied to foreign nations. This relation is admittedly imperfect, of course, since sometimes we are invading countries that have done harm to their own citizens, but that is beyond the scope of the discussion.