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COVER STORY

Lessons of War

How Stanford experts put their studies to work in the corridors of power.

The Heads of State

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By Joel McCormick

Since 2009 began, suicide bombers returned to Iraq and Sri Lanka, terrorists turned a Pakistani cricket ground into a shooting gallery, Afghanistan seemed to be slipping further into the grip of the Taliban, and more treachery was visited on Africa—all eruptions of old sores that defy healing.

What is it we’re missing about how conflicts begin and end? And how does the academy’s deep knowledge of issues of war and peace get communicated to policymakers? STANFORD asked resident experts what lessons they drew from conflicts they studied or had a role in, and how they relayed their insights to the people in charge. The exercise yielded thoughtful reflections but also vivid examples of six individuals determined to see their learning count for something at the highest levels.

The project was partly inspired by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, JD ’49, whose recent work resulted in a proposed statute, being considered by Congress, that would truly engage legislators in decisions committing American forces to combat. His essay reminds us how dysfunctional relations between Capitol Hill and the White House can get.

American foreign policymaking, observes political science chair James Fearon, is extremely concentrated at the top. “The number of people making significant decisions is incredibly small,” he says. “They have no time for anything, but there’s a huge bureaucracy under and around them that’s voracious in terms of policy arguments, information, data—and of analysis from people like me and other academics who feed into that maelstrom in lots of different places.”

Fearon admits that in his earlier days he didn’t believe anyone who mattered was paying attention. “One thing I’ve been surprised and heartened by is how much people are aware of work in a field like political science, and how often they actually read journal articles, or even working papers, particularly when you’re working on something very specific like Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Given the enormous amount of time consumed by congressional hearings, C-SPAN viewers might be surprised to learn how comparatively little importance even some veteran testifiers attach to them. Chances are, Fearon says, an op-ed crossing the desk of a senior policymaker will have more impact on shaping policy.

Michael McFaul, ’86, MA ’86, on leave from Stanford to join the National Security Council, says congressional testimony gets ideas on the table, but a lot more has to happen before those ideas travel anywhere important. Former Defense Secretary William Perry says he can’t remember borrowing an idea gleaned from hearings or op-eds. “I think the ability to influence senators and congressmen who are most influential in a given area is more important.” He advises aspiring policy shapers to build up all the intellectual capital they can at a place like Stanford, spend it liberally in Washington—then return to the academy and stock up again.

 

Priya Satia

Beware Groupthink

In 1920, the League of Nations formally cleaved off chunks of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s punishment for backing the losing side in World War I. Britain was mandated to administer Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, along with Palestine and Transjordan; France to administer Syria (then including Lebanon).

To contain Shiite, Sunni and Iraq’s other groups, more restive for a new colonial presence, Whitehall resorted to aerial surveillance and control, encouraged by its agents on the ground, according to assistant professor of history Priya Satia. Foreshadowing the Pentagon’s Minerva project, which funds social sciences research targeting world hot spots, imperial London turned to the British academy, recruiting scholars to work as secret agents. (The most famous was Oxford archeologist-turned-spy T.E. Lawrence, raised to near sainthood in the David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia.)

Despite the fact that shadowy mountains, extensive forest cover and low-lying marshes hid many on-the-ground realities from the sky cameras of the day, the British persisted with aerial photography, Satia says, knowing Iraq was not the land of endlessly rolling desert that argued for such a policy. And they continued to surprise and bomb from the air, killing so many innocents that they soon thought better of classifying male and female kills.

Then as later, policymaking was distorted by what Satia, ’95, calls groupthink. “[The British] started out with a presumption that things were connected, or that there were certain kinds of movements on the ground, and then they would read the most meager scrap of evidence as confirmation.” As Satia describes it, agents in the field and officials in London competed among themselves not to question the premise, but to come up with evidence that proved it.

“The dispute [was] over the final actor behind all of it,” she says. The Russians, the Germans, the Jews, someone had to be stirring the pot. “It couldn’t be that people locally [were] upset over the British presence, because that’s a verdict on the British Empire they could not accept or even imagine.”

Satia sees modern-day parallels with Washington’s failure to predict 9-11 and the debacle over weapons of mass destruction. “There was a sense that people presumed certain things to exist, or presumed things not to exist, and everything became sort of self-fulfilling.” Eventually, as the war in Iraq strayed farther from the sketchy occupation blueprint, the United States sought out British counterinsurgency expertise, despite its failures in Kenya, Malaya and other territories, including Iraq.

In 2007, the U.S. Directorate of National Intelligence invited Satia to address staffers from more than a dozen different intelligence organizations about Middle East counterinsurgency. She spoke about the risks of groupthink, and the price British and Iraqis paid for that. But the message seemed to pass people by.

They wanted to hear more about T.E. Lawrence, she says, not sounding very surprised. “The kind of people who get into intelligence have been inspired by the T.E. Lawrences—they staked their careers on having some kind of secret role in the making of history, and when you tell them that’s not going to work, I mean, what are they supposed to do with that information?”

The Pentagon’s relationship with the American academy, so collaborative in engineering and science, has been an uneasy one in the humanities and social sciences, if the controversy over Minerva is anything to go by. Satia counts herself among the program’s critics, arguing that it’s one thing for the Pentagon to dig into published research about foreign cultures, quite another to fund research with strings attached. The result of that, she argues, will benefit neither the government nor the academy.

“If you tell me what the new security threat is going to be and that’s where I should focus, then my role in inventing the question is pretty minimal,” Satia says. “It reinforces groupthink, looking for what will confirm your existing biases, existing preconceptions and pre-existing assumptions.”

 

William Perry

The Bosnian Prism

William Perry was secretary of defense from early 1994 to early 1997, and deputy secretary just before that. Years earlier, he had been undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, and before and between spins of Washington’s revolving door he headed electronics ventures and worked in venture capital—and at Stanford. When he is not speaking or troubleshooting around the planet, Perry, ’49, MS ’50, still carries enough campus job titles at 81 to drive a sign painter to tears: the short list includes senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor (a joint appointment in the School of Engineering and the Freeman-Spogli Institute); and co-director of the Preventive Defense Project, a joint Stanford-Harvard initiative aimed at averting threats to global security through personal interaction with world political and military leaders.

The former defense chief considers Iraq and Afghanistan from the perspective of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, and from there the lessons are clear. First, “It helps a lot if you have been invited in, instead of pushing your way in. In Bosnia they weren’t happy about it, but at least there was nominal acceptance of it. We did not have that in either Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Lesson 2: “It’s a big help to have international sanction for what you’re doing. In Bosnia, we had a U.N. mandate and a NATO authorization to send a full force in,” he says. “Among other things, it allowed us to rally people who would have difficulty supporting it.” The United States went into Iraq without that. Afghanistan? “We ended up with a NATO team, but we didn’t start out that way. In fact, we started out turning down outside assistance.”

Lesson 3: Go in with all the force you need, and more. That was his approach to Bosnia, and he remembers being criticized for it. But the strategy delivered results unlike those in Iraq: “No group in the country tried to contend with that force.” And although some predicted significant U.S. casualties, “there were virtually none.”

Lesson 4: “If you cannot put up a sufficiently sized and equipped force to do the job, then you should bring in allies to help with the job—and, of course, all that depends on having the international sanctions in the first place,” he says. “We had that in spades in Bosnia; we did not have it in Afghanistan, not originally, and we never had that in Iraq.”

Lesson 5: “If you’re trying to fight an insurgency, you really have to have a strategy for getting the population with you.” Bosnia comprised combative Muslims and Bosnian Serbs, but by maintaining mixed patrols of Russian and Western troops, the former favored by Slavs, the latter by Muslims, “we went a long way to minimizing opposition,” Perry says. In Iraq, the people supported the insurgents who lived among them, “so they had all the advantage of intelligence and we had [none].”

Perry remembers another lesson, which might be summarized as look before you leap. He contends that only people who hadn’t studied the situation could fail to see civil war breaking out in Iraq. “It was willful ignorance on the part of the planners to miss that.”

Perry and Sandra Day O’Connor, ’50, JD ’52, were among 10 prominent Americans recruited for the bipartisan Iraq Study Group commissioned by Congress in March 2006. Chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker (a Republican) and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton (a Democrat), it recommended engaging Iraq’s neighbors to help stabilize the country and a staged reduction of U.S. troops, coupled with expanded training of Iraqi forces to do the heavy lifting.

Securing White House agreement was a long shot, given that the ISG was Congress’s idea. “There was an outside chance it would have been accepted because it was bipartisan and it was headed by Jim Baker who was well thought of by the president,” Perry says. He remembers Baker talking him down from some positions: “We had a much more explicit statement about how to go about troop withdrawals and we moderated that quite a bit to give the president a little bit of maneuvering room,” he says. “It wasn’t a Democrat-Republican thing—Baker was trying to find a report the president might be willing to accept.”

There was reason to hope he might. “The first briefing was to the president and he seemed very positive. Then we briefed the Congress and they seemed very positive.”

But then: “About two days later the president rejected it and set off on a different path.” There was no back and forth after that. The group disbanded and never met again.

Perry consigns past projects to columns of winners and losers. He calls the ISG effort “a loser,” but then pauses. “There was one perceptible effect even though the recommendations were not accepted,” he begins. “The first half of the report laid out in exquisite and honest detail what the situation was and from that point on, there was no more happy talk about how things were not as bad as they seemed.”

How projects fared often depended on whether Perry was in or out of office. In 1998, back at Stanford, Perry was asked to lead negotiations aimed at getting North Korea to stop nuclear arms development. Japan, South Korea and the United States had agreed on a formula. “And it was about to be accepted by the North Koreans,” he says. “But then there was a change of administrations and the agreement was never followed up on—so that’s a ‘might have been.’”

Disarmament efforts on Perry’s watch had made a promising start. The United States had convinced Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan to destroy their nuclear arsenals. The nukes in Ukraine’s quiver alone added up to more than those of Britain, France and China combined.

Since then, India and Pakistan joined the nuclear club, but Asia had produced some wins. China and Taiwan were talking again, opening the way for today’s direct sea and air links. Perry had helped end a dangerous standoff that had lasted years.

 

Martha Crenshaw

Perspectives on Terrorism

If the Bush administration’s pursuit of nonexistent WMD in Iraq was a costly lesson about relying on shaky intelligence, what’s the likely tab for exaggerating the terrorist threat?

Martha Crenshaw is part of a countrywide network of scholars devoted to putting that threat into perspective. A senior fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), Crenshaw spent more than 30 years investigating terrorism around the world from her former base at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She says it is vital that we get the contours of the problem right because the more it is exaggerated, the more society will be bound up in intrusive security measures.

Especially troubling to Crenshaw is the fact that hastily passed emergency laws rarely get taken off the books. And the slide doesn’t necessarily stop there. In some countries, she says, judiciaries that once served as bulwarks for safeguarding individual rights have started to close ranks with governments, abandoning long-held precepts in the name of enhanced security. That is the conclusion she and her colleagues draw from a tally of recent decisions in Israel and Western Europe, where only German courts consistently pushed back against new security laws.

For example, Crenshaw rejects the popular assumption that the United States is at the top of every terrorist group’s hit list. It’s not even a top-10 country, she says, if you count domestic terrorism. And there is nothing especially new about random, murderous attacks on innocent civilians, she contends, except that technology has made them bigger and deadlier. Anarchists started to maim and murder in 19th-century France, just as the IRA and other groups killed countless innocents in the 20th. “And the notion that terrorism is not organized at all, and just inspirational . . . well, that’s the way anarchists operated.”

It’s hard to know whether confusion on this point reflects merely ignorance or something more sinister, but as Crenshaw observes, “Saying it’s entirely new is a way of hyping the threat.”

As the idea that all terrorists hated American values gained currency in the post 9-11 era, a threat check seemed like a good idea. “We decided to focus on attacks on the U.S. or its interests abroad, and separate them out from the others,” she says. The “we” was the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) based at the University of Maryland, for which Crenshaw is a lead investigator.

Using data covering 1970 to 2004, they compared attacks on the United States to attacks on non-U.S. targets by the same anti-American groups. Crenshaw says other studies either excluded domestic attacks entirely or used data only from 1997 on. Working from a new database that aggregated domestic and transnational terrorist attacks, START examined anti-U.S. and non-U.S. attack patterns of groups identified by both the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center as especially dangerous to the United States.

Their investigation revealed that more than 96 percent of the 16,000-plus attacks over the 25-year period focused on non-U.S. targets. “Not only did these groups that were considered threatening rarely attack the U.S., and almost never at home, but more than 90 percent of their non-U.S. attacks were domestic,” the START authors write in their January 2009 article, “Trajectories of Terrorism: Attack Patterns of Foreign Groups That Have Targeted The United States, 1970 to 2004.”

In an earlier article Crenshaw recalled a State Department claim that a third of all terrorist attacks worldwide targeted the United States. In their new article, she and her co-authors revisit that point and another that argued that most foreign victims of transnational terrorism have been U.S. nationals—a conclusion, they say, that can only be drawn by leaving local attacks out of the equation.

The big picture was missing. “This puts a different face on the whole threat,” she says. “It’s not a bunch of people out there attacking us.”

 

Michael McFaul

Resurgent Russia

Michael McFaul is finishing his last week as director of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) to join the Obama White House as special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council. So he won’t be able to take many questions, he says, because the Russians will construe his answers as official policy.

McFaul had already given Congress an earful on how everyone dropped the ball in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Georgia. “The initial skirmishes between Ossetian and Georgian forces that first sparked this conflict in early August 2008 should have been contained,” he told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in September. “Had the international community—led by an attentive and proactive American government—engaged both the Russian and Georgian governments in an effort to first stop the violence immediately, and then more ambitiously, to mediate a permanent solution to Georgia’s border disputes, this war might have been avoided.”

Russia was acting in increasingly troubling ways: only weeks after the Georgian adventure, President Dmitri Medvedev declared that Russia considered all post-Soviet republics a “privileged” sphere of interest.

That was old news to McFaul. “This campaign of asserting Russian hegemony in the region started well before the Russian intervention in Georgia and will continue well beyond,” he told the hearing. “Developing a sustainable, smart and multidimensional strategy for addressing a resurgent and autocratic Russia has now crystallized as a central 21st-century foreign policy challenge for the United States and our allies.”

A smart strategy meant neither business-as-usual engagement nor isolating Russia, but a third, “more nuanced” way, aimed at bolstering its neighbors in their effort to build their economies and democratic institutions—while engaging Russia directly in areas of mutual interest. And to discourage Russia from further adventures, it also meant NATO countries speaking with one voice again, and reaffirming their commitment to Article V, which declares an attack on one member an attack on all.

McFaul’s 12-point brief called for promoting information flow and democracy development, international reaffirmation of national borders, developing alternatives to reduce dependence on Russian energy exports, and other initiatives, many costing money the United States no longer has.

Back at his Encina Hall office, McFaul takes up this last point. In light of the financial crisis, he concedes, “The ideas that Obama articulated about foreign assistance all have to be rethought and reconfigured. The one thing I would say is that if you want to help a country’s political development, the best way you can do it is through education and information. That’s the least expensive program of foreign assistance we do. That’s our comparative advantage—it’s not occupying countries and running them. In my room right here, there’s so much information that if I had the [means] to help get that out, that would help build institutions.”

Russia is certainly getting more attention these days. “There were more members of Congress at that testimony than any testimony I’ve ever given,” McFaul says, describing the five-hour session. “It’s useful to talk to them, without question, but then you’ve got to use your email account to send out your ideas to policy makers at the highest levels.”

It takes more than that to shape policy. “The best way to turn ideas into policy is to have the ideas, nurture them while you’re at a place like Stanford and then go work for the government, and that’s what I’m about to go do.”

Backing a winner also helps, and timing, too. McFaul had worked on Russian policy questions for the Obama campaign for nearly two years. “Russia became a lot more interesting after August in terms of how important it was for the campaign. As a result of that work, I’m going to be working in the White House.”

 

James Fearon

Exit Scenarios

James Fearon can’t remember exactly when he concluded Iraq was descending into civil war. He does remember worrying from day one about the United States getting stuck there, and writing an article about problematic exits with political science professor David Laitin. “Neotrusteeship and the Problem of Weak States” (International Security, Spring 2004) catalogued pullouts delayed by “mission creep”—cases where intervening powers went in to stop a civil war and then got bogged down building up state institutions and staying on to prevent war breaking out again.

“It’s a problem the U.N. encountered repeatedly in the 1990s, and [one] the Bush administration didn’t learn from,” Fearon says, citing Kosovo, Congo, East Timor and other examples.

By 2006, he had no doubt about Iraq’s situation and said as much in testimony before a congressional subcommittee. “By any reasonable definition, Iraq is in the midst of a civil war, the scale and extent of which is limited somewhat by the U.S. military presence,” Fearon said.

He told the House subcommittee that civil wars, post-1945, typically lasted more than 10 years, and that power sharing (which the United States was encouraging between dominant Shiites and minority Sunnis) only worked as long as interveners stayed to enforce it. And that being the case, gradual redeployment was preferable to permanent occupation “that ties our hands and damages our strategic position in both the region and the world.”

People in important places seemed to be paying attention, the proof of that coming in emails from members of Gen. David Petraeus’s group. “The feedback made it clear that it had been read.”

Fearon says a complete pullout would lead to a return of political disorder and disintegration, or “a quite good chance of it.” By his lights, it was that realization that had the Bush administration “trying to go for something like a Bosnian scenario in the sense that international authority or implicit military threat never really left Bosnia, and still hasn’t.” According to Fearon, “It’s not a self-governing, standalone, sovereign entity to this day.”

The so-called Awakening in 2006 helped turn things around. (Alarmed at how al-Qaida insurgents had been insinuating themselves in the Sunni community—and increasingly suspicious of their Iranian Shiite links—Sunni leaders and their fast-massing followers, the Sons of Iraq, allied with the Americans to rout the insurgents.) “It made it possible,” Fearon says, “to envision something like a Bosnian scenario in Iraq where in the best case we get our troops down to, say, 30,000 or even fewer, and things kind of go along.”

In this scenario, the government carries on with U.S. forces remaining in the background to dissuade any group from trying to take over. “That kind of implicit guarantee allows the government that’s not particularly strong to limp along and function,” Fearon says. “That’s parallel more or less to what you had in Bosnia, where there was implicit this international club behind the door.”

But nothing is for sure. “Whether the Bosnia scenario is feasible in Iraq, we’ll see. If you asked me if a tutelary democracy was feasible at the end of 2006, I would have said ‘almost impossible.’” Thanks to the Awakening and “better” counterinsurgency policies under Petraeus, Fearon thinks prospects look a little brighter.

In 2006, ethnic cleansing was in full swing in Baghdad, and by backing the Shiite-dominated [Maliki] government, Fearon contends, the United States was “to some extent enabling” it. That said, “It was a big reason why things calmed down—the city was very divided and massive numbers of Sunnis, and to some extent Shiites, were driven out of the neighborhoods they lived in,” he adds. “What I was worried about did take place. We’re now further along where there still is a question about whether the Maliki government or its possible successors that will be Shiite-dominated are smart enough to buy off enough relevant Sunni leaders to prevent a return of insurgency.”

Civil wars have played out in various ways, Fearon says, thinking back to Lebanon (1975-90), Turkey in the late 1970s, and Tajikistan, which splintered into clan and regional groups after the Soviet Union went to pieces. “Eventually [war] ended when it became clear that one clan or group would be dominant, and this perception helped the president play a divide-and-rule strategy by buying off a lot of his clan or regionally fractionalized potential opponents,” he says.

“If there’s going to be stability in Iraq in the near term, it’s going to have to involve that kind of politics—with a center with money and enough smarts and inclination to pay off a whole bunch of people who without that will organize in groups to go back to the fight.”

 

Stephen Stedman

Smarter Peacemaking

For Stephen Stedman, senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), preventing the United Nations from descending into irrelevance is a topic that won’t let go. Stedman, ’79, MA ’85, PhD ’88, was research director of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (HLP), and its 2004 report argued for a new view of collective security and an expanded Security Council.

The Security Council’s five veto-holding permanent members remain the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China—as in 1945—while Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, Germany, Europe’s biggest, and rising powers like India and Brazil remain outside the circle. (Ten other members are elected for nonrenewable two-year terms, the best these outsiders can hope for.)

In 2005, Stedman was appointed special assistant to Kofi Annan to follow up on the HLP proposals. Security Council expansion was doomed by various council and General Assembly members’ objections, as were other recommendations, including one to strengthen regimes covering nonproliferation and disarmament. The exercise did yield some wins, including a new definition of collective security that acknowledged development as a component, new machinery for peace building, and new guidelines for intervention recognizing that how nations treated their people wasn’t simply “an internal matter” anymore. As Stedman later noted, this didn’t stop the genocide in Darfur, feeding cynicism over the United Nations’ capacity to change.

But change it must. Stedman now argues for a two-step approach; first expanding the G8 (to 13, 16 or more countries) and getting everyone used to working together there. As its own club, the G8 could decide that tomorrow. “The G8 cannot solve anything on its own anymore,” he says. It needs China, Brazil and other outsiders to get anything done. The group has informally expanded anyway, with November’s G20 meeting in London. “If we created a situation where it’s expected and normal for the director of policy planning at the State Department to interact with his counterparts in Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, China and India—in addition to traditional allies—you start to create networks of people who can build confidence and trust,” he says.

“I don’t think it would be unrealistic that two or three years out we say, ‘Let’s bite the bullet and get serious about the formal institution, the U.N.’” With today’s changed distribution of power, the new actors already have a veto over the effectiveness of international institutions, he says. “So do you want to take a chance and engage those with the wherewithal to make a difference?”

Making a difference in peacekeeping would be a start. Stedman offers three lessons from years spent in Africa, part of that time as a U.N. observer. The first has to do with what he calls “spoilers” in peace processes, and recognizing that competing sides in civil wars want not peace, but victory. “The U.N. always went in with the best-case analysis, and assumed all parties were acting in good faith when they wanted to make peace,” Stedman says. Be realistic and you start thinking strategically: remember, Stedman says, 10,000 died in Rwanda’s civil war, and 800,000 perished after the peace agreement was signed.

The second lesson is that context also defines the mission. Taking years to get buy-in for peace in Guatemala isn’t a model for hammering out an agreement that stops mass killing in Bosnia. If planners recognize that, Stedman says, they start thinking about appropriate strategies, resources and who best suits the mission, the United Nations or another multilateral.

The third lesson: keep at fixing the machinery, as the HLP set out to do in Annan’s bid for a U.N. overhaul. Out of that came a new peace-building commission, support office and trust fund (to underwrite high-impact projects like organizing Liberia’s crucial timber industry, a recent case).

“Fifty percent of peace agreements failed within five years of being signed,” Stedman says. Spoilers and poor strategies tell part of the story. “But some of it has to do with the fact that you’re not creating the institutions of a stable state so that when you leave there’s something there.” Doing that means developing a perspective that extends out long after the peacekeepers have gone, and thinking about peace building as a composite activity covering human rights, security, rule of law, refugee patriation, mediation and other areas—and getting all these actors working together.

Acknowledge realities, and peace gets a chance.


JOEL McCORMICK is a journalist based in Menlo Park and Hong Kong.

 

Warren Christopher

Rethinking War Powers

During my two terms of service at the State Department, I was repeatedly faced with questions concerning the appropriate roles of the executive and legislative branches in initiating and conducting combat operations.

In 1980, when I was deputy secretary of state, President Carter launched a military mission to rescue 52 American hostages in Iran. Before he took action, the president consulted with only one member of Congress, Sen. Robert Byrd, and advised him only in the most general terms that an operation was imminent. When the mission had to be aborted because three helicopters were unable to reach the rendezvous site in the desert, leaders in Congress were plainly upset that they had not been consulted in advance. While the president’s decision to reveal his intentions vaguely and to a very limited audience may be explained by the sensitive nature of the mission, President Carter has written in his memoir, Keeping Faith, that he wished he had shared more details with Sen. Byrd.

On the other end of the consultative spectrum, in 1995, when I was secretary of state, both the Senate and House of Representatives involved themselves deeply in issues concerning the thorny dispute in the Balkans. The two houses passed various resolutions supporting or constraining the president’s deployment of troops, but no consensus was reached on a single measure. Frustrated by the congressional dithering, President Clinton, relying on his commander-in-chief authority, deployed troops to carry out the Bosnian peace agreement reached at Dayton.

With threats such as that posed by Iran hovering on the horizon, it seems inevitable that our new president will face the question of whether to act unilaterally in the face of a grave threat or rather to seek the counsel of the Congress. Because such choices have confronted virtually every American presidency, the Miller Center at the University of Virginia convened a National Commission on War Powers, co-chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and me, to examine how those choices have been made in the past and to suggest a regime for addressing them in the future.

The debate that gave rise to our commission has been going on for more than two centuries. One school of thought argues that Congress is the pre-eminent power in such decisions because, under the Constitution, it has authority to declare and fund war. The other line of argument is that, because the Constitution makes him “commander in chief,” the president has the dominant, ultimate authority. A common theme running through the debate is the need for meaningful consultation between the president and Congress before the nation is committed to military action.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, Congress tried to resolve this tension by enacting the War Powers Resolution of 1973. That statute purports to require the president to halt a new military campaign if Congress has not approved it within 90 days after it commences. No president has ever recognized the resolution as valid, and Congress has never moved to enforce it. In sum, the resolution has been mainly honored in the breach, creating only the illusion of clarity.

After studying the matter for a year, our bipartisan commission concluded that no ad hoc group, no matter how experienced or expert, could resolve the fundamental debate. Only a holding of the Supreme Court or an amendment to the Constitution could do that job with the immutable force of law. What we could do, we agreed, was to craft a proposal that would focus on the importance of consultation between the president and Congress, hopefully commanding broad support among all interested parties. The commission conducted many interviews and much research. Stanford played an important role, hosting one commission meeting and furnishing expert witnesses and advisers, with Law School Dean Larry Kramer providing regular advice and encouragement.

Out of this process came a unanimous recommendation for a new War Powers Consultation Act of 2009, intended to replace the flawed 1973 resolution. It would require the president to consult with (not simply notify) Congress before committing our forces to engage in “a significant armed conflict,” the latter defined as combat operations that last or are expected to last more than a week. If secrecy or other emergent circumstances preclude prior consultation, then consultation would have to be undertaken within three days of the decision to engage in hostilities. The consultation would take place with a joint committee made up of specified leaders in Congress, and served by a permanent bipartisan staff.

Congress would be required to vote within 30 days after such a commitment of our forces on a resolution to approve the action. In short, Congress would be required to take a position on a proposed or ongoing hostile action rather than be permitted to criticize it from the sidelines.

Congress has already begun to consider the proposed new statute. The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing in March, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee intends to do the same later this spring. Both President Obama and Vice President Biden have expressed interest. My hope is that the new Congress and administration will agree that this is a practical, necessary and important reform.


WARREN CHRISTOPHER, JD ’49, served as deputy secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter and secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.

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