In trying to answer a question about what the president does, I'm currently hung up on "war".

See: https://politics.stackexchange.com/a/11878/8298 for more details.

Essentially, my statement is that the President can not start a war. That he can only respond to war declaration by congress. He can certainly support a war politically but the act of declaring a war is outside his "powers".

The counter to this argument is that while technically accurate the US no longer declares war in that manor, and thus it's a misleading point.

Which leads me to the interesting question; Has the US president ever "gone to war" that the legislative branch did not support?

Now for this question, war should mean military action, and should not include instances of the US participating in UN military actions where we were obligated to do so because of a treaty ratified by congress, but could include the president doing an end around and going to UN route to force the point.

Also as far as "support" is concerned, I don't mean popular support, I mean a resolution, act, bill, or some such that granted powers to the president.

Clandestine operations don't count either, as they fall under a whole different ball of wax.

  • How explicit are you hoping this answer to be? Ignoring covert operations (as requested), an argument can be made for the Vietnam War, as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized the President to assist "any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty", which was then used by Johnson to say "hey look, we need to defend South Vietnam now!" (Vietnam was not a member of SEATO). It was just a matter or nudging the definition. The same can be said of Operation Freedom Deal in Cambodia (related to the Cambodian Civil War as much as the Vietnam War).
    – Jimmy M.
    Jul 29, 2016 at 17:18
  • Specifically, the Congress debated Syria and refused to authorize going to war there, but we are there anyway. I think they may have debated Libya as well and we went to war there. Either way they did not receive the legislative support they needed for that war either.
    – J Doe
    Jul 31, 2017 at 18:08

2 Answers 2


The War Powers Act is the legislation that sets rules about declaring war or using military force without actually declaring war. Both presidents Clinton and Obama have been accused of violating it at times, but nothing significant came from those accusations.

President Clinton continued a bombing campaign in Kosovo 12 days past the 60 day timeline without explicit approval from congress authoring military force. This case was dismissed. since operations ended withing the 30 day withdrawal period he was accepted to be complaint.

President Obama continued operations in Libya past the 60 day limit, arguing that he didn't need approval. His justification was heavily criticized by both parties, but a case against him was never pursued.

  • 3
    It should be noted that technically Congress has to declare a war. However, the POTUS is overall commander of the armed forces, and declarations of war have become a bit of an old-fashioned formality. There hasn't been one since 1942. The War Powers Act is kind of a compromise where Congress has legislatively delegated some authority to initiate conflict to the POTUS, while spelling out where they have to become involved. Where the constitutional line would be without it is very uncertain.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 29, 2016 at 18:50
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    @Readin: AIUI the whole point of the War Powers Act is it allows the President to respond to an immediate crisis, but Congress must debate and vote on the military action within 60 days. Are you saying it was somehow not possible to hold a Congressional vote within the 60 day limit? Jul 31, 2017 at 9:11
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    @Royal Canadian Bandit 19 You make a good point. I'm deleting my comment. I was thinking in terms of his decision to act without getting approval first, not his decision to continue acting beyond the 60 days.
    – Readin
    Aug 1, 2017 at 4:37

President Obama attacked Libya without Congressional approval. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/world/africa/22powers.html

There are examples where either the element of surprise or a need to act swiftly made it difficult to get Congressional approval:

  • Bush the Elder's invasion of Panama.
  • Reagan's invasion of Greneda.
  • Clinton's bombing of Kosovo.
  • Don't forget Bush Jr.'s response to 9/11/2001. While congressional approval was swift to follow, the military action began before congress could convene.
    – GOATNine
    Jul 31, 2017 at 18:06
  • @GOATNine Sorry, I'm not having any luck finding the timeline of military vs Congressional action after 9/11. My memory says that Bush got approval first before acting in Afghanistan, but perhaps my memory is wrong? When did Bush begin military action and when did he get the authorization?
    – Readin
    Aug 1, 2017 at 4:41
  • I'm working from pure memory here (the whole tragedy got burned into my mind). I believe George W. Bush acted on September 12 to mobilize the military, and authorized action at that time. The authorization was soon after (within 2 days if memory serves).
    – GOATNine
    Aug 1, 2017 at 13:26
  • What types of action? Was it the kind of thing that couldn't wait (like getting intelligence in place to find out who did it and where they are before the guilty parties can disappear)? I know the actual invasion of Afghanistan was quite a bit later. He even gave the Taliban government of Afghanistan the option of turning over Bin Laden rather than having the invasion.
    – Readin
    Aug 6, 2017 at 3:14

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