The failure of the U.S. Congressional Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to reach agreement on budget cuts now sets the stage for $1.2 trillion in automatic reductions to begin in January 2013.

Should these cuts go into effect, the U.S. Defense Department, which already must implement $450 billion in reductions over 10 years, will take half the hit.

Pushback has already begun, with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arguing that further reductions will impose “substantial risk” to America’s national security.

If history is a guide, global events, not deficit hawks or military promoters, will have the ultimate say over how far defense reductions go. As the Cold War ended, who would have thought that the United States would become entangled in Somalia, the Balkans, and Kuwait — or, when the new century began, that the U.S. would spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year on wars in Southwest Asia.

While America must, of course, bear any cost to fight a war of survival, throughout history, America’s economic power gave it a broad cushion to pursue wars of choice. In today’s world, one would think that U.S. economic distress would cure that compulsion.

But that did not happen in Libya, and events will likely tempt future presidents to behave in the same way, despite the risks. And Congress is unlikely to use its authority to play a more assertive role if legislators wed themselves to the recent past.

America’s fiscal challenges ought to prompt a re-evaluation. Practical change requires revision of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which grants presidents unfettered rights to commit American forces for 60 days.

More fundamentally, Congress must ask itself whether the responsibilities that it assumed in America’s formative years provide a template for today.

“Upon the whole it rests with Congress to decide between war, tribute and ransom as the means of re-establishing our Mediterranean commerce,” Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson advised President George Washington in 1790, as he pondered a response to continued attacks by the Barbary Pirates on America’s merchant fleet off North Africa. With no navy to speak of, Congress had little choice but to grin and bear it.

In 1798, it stopped doing so. It responded to revolutionary France’s attacks on American ships destined for England by voiding treaties and commercial agreements and, at President John Adams’ request, by authorizing the use of force.

By the time Jefferson assumed the presidency, that quasi-war had ended, but the challenge posed by the Barbary Pirates remained. In 1801, with Congress absent from the capital, Jefferson took matters into his own hands, ordering a new fleet of frigates to sea to protect merchant shipping. Still mindful of Congress’ critical role in warmaking, Jefferson asked for and received ratification when legislators returned.

A decade later, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, with the British attacking American ships and impressing sailors, Congress broke with the past. Despite divisions, for the first time it used the power granted by the U.S. Constitution to declare war. In the nearly 200 years that followed, Congress did so only four more times, three in response to attacks on U.S. maritime interests — the Spanish-American War and the two world wars — and the Mexican-American War in 1846.

President James K. Polk provoked the Mexican-American war by sending American forces across the disputed Texas frontier without congressional consent. That set a precedent that would be replayed in repeated interventions in the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico from the turn of the century through the early 1930s, as well as in interventions in China and Russia. Throughout, Congress remained largely impassive.

That passivity continued after World War II, not only in Latin America, but also in U.S. interventions around the world — Korea, the Balkans, Lebanon, Somalia, and now Libya. In other instances — the Formosa Straits, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait — Congress issued broad authorizations but no declaration of war.

Had the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq gone well, perhaps the U.S. could accept the costs and manner of authorization. But they did not go well, bolstering those who declare “enough,” and prompting the question of whether the U.S. president alone — even under the facade of congressional authorizations rather than formal declarations of war — ought to bear the war-making responsibility.

At the time that it advanced its draft war-powers legislation, the Senate said “no.” Instead, it proposed that Congress assume the authority to commit forces to combat without a war declaration only to forestall or respond to an armed attack on the U.S. or to protect the evacuation of American citizens from foreign soil. But the final War Powers Resolution rejected that approach.

Those who feel comfortable with the status quo would do well to heed the conclusion that Rep. Abraham Lincoln reached at the end of the Mexican-American War: “Allow the president to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure.”

In today’s difficult economic era, only Congress can ensure that the president’s pleasure no longer becomes the country’s burden. The time to act in formulating new legislation is now, before the next war of choice presents itself.

Bennett Ramberg served as a foreign policy analyst and consultant to the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Senate. He is the author of several books on international security. © 2011 Project Syndicate

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