Former Defense Sec. Gates: It should be harder for presidents to launch military actions

Congress should make it more difficult for presidents to use military force, said Robert Gates, the former defense secretary who served under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

Speaking with reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor on Friday, the former Pentagon head said Congress had abdicated too much power to the executive branch on matters of war.

“The hurdle for the use of military force, particularly in the absence of an immediate threat of the United States, imposed by requiring a congressional act, would not necessarily be a bad thing,” Gates said. “I think the bar for preventive war ought to be very high. Iraq was a preventive war. An attack on Iran would be a preventive war. ... To make a decision to go to war purely on the basis of intelligence assessments and absent smoking guns, I think, is a very iffy matter. I think the bar against that ought to be very high.”

The United States has retained a military presence in Afghanistan for nearly 13 years, which began as a response to terror attacks on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001. In 2003, the United States sent military forces to Iraq. Congress did not approve a formal Declaration of War for either conflict, both of which have cost the lives of more than 6,700 American service members and tens of thousands more living in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 1973, the War Powers Act gave the executive branch authority to command military action at the will of the president for a temporary period of time. Although Congress still has the power to withhold funding, U.S. presidents’ calls for military intervention are rarely halted completely.

Gates, who also served in various capacities under Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush during his career, said Congress should be more aggressive about its constitutional role.

“One of the things I lament is that because of the changes in the Congress, I think they have become less important in the governance of the nation,” Gates, who was not in active government service during the initial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, said. “They’ve weakened themselves in the decision-making process. I think they ought to assert themselves more in terms of these decisions. If you can’t resolve the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, then be more aggressive in the use of the power of the purse. Basically say, 'If you go that direction, then you’re going to have to have a bake sale because you’re not going to get any money from the Congress.'”

When asked spefically if the war in Iraq should have required a formal war declaration, Gates replied, “My initial instinct in response is probably 'Yes.'”