US Presidential War Powers

Legacy Chains in Military Intervention Decisionmaking

Published in: Journal of Peace Research, v. 45, no. 5, Sep. 2008, p. 665-679

Posted on RAND.org on December 31, 2007

by Christopher Paul

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Using the events leading to the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and its subsequent impact on US military interventions as an empirical example, this article elaborates the notion of 'legacy chains.' Expanding on the general notion of policy legacies, the discussion describes the effects that post-World War II US military interventions have had on each other through the policy legacies left by each in turn. The argument allows that military intervention legacies have their strongest impact on decisionmaking for an immediately subsequent intervention but can also leave durable impressions on the institutional context, which, after being modified by subsequent military interventions, constitute 'legacy chains.' These legacy chains are path-dependent processes, in that their institutional embodiments follow 'increasing returns' logics and will remain in place until the structure of returns changes, usually due to a 'critical shift'. In response to a series of perceived abuses of presidential war powers following World War II, the War Powers Resolution sought to ensure congressional participation in future commitments of US forces to hostilities. It has not done so. The lasting legacy of the War Powers Resolution is an unintended consequence of the way it was formally institutionalized. Presidents, following the letter of the resolution, have designed post-War Powers Resolution military interventions to either be short (so the 60-day mandatory reporting period specified in the resolution ends with a fait accompli) or popular, so that public and congressional opinion are sufficient to ensure approval of the operation, either before it starts or once underway. While the actual legacy of the War Powers Resolution is not what was intended at its inception, it is unlikely to be formally changed until a future (hypothetical) abuse of war powers sufficiently egregious to break through its institutional inertia.

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