On taking over the presidency in 1974 after Nixon's resignation, Gerald R. Ford made clear he would continue his predecessor's war policy and that he had no intention of reducing what he perceived as the executive's power in foreign affairs. In his first speech before Congress, he expressed briefly his view of that authority: "Throughout my public service, I have upheld all our Presidents when they spoke for my country to the world. I believe the Constitution commands this." For example, he continued covert operations. So, in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, Congress placed minor restraints on this practice. With this law, for the first time it openly recognized the president's assumed power to engage in covert ventures in the name of national security. Congress thus augmented the executive's power to initiate warfare unilaterally.
Ford tried to salvage what remained of Nixon's policy by asking Congress for $972 million in military and other aid for South Vietnam. Congress refused. In April 1975 the government of South Vietnam collapsed and the northern communists took over, uniting Vietnam. Several weeks later, when a Khmer Rouge, or communist, gunboat seized an American merchant ship, the SS Mayaguez, sixty miles off the Cambodian coast, Ford called the capture piracy and demanded release of the vessel and crew. Tardily, the Cambodian communists said they would free the men and ship. Determined to demonstrate that the commander in chief could still flex muscle, Ford resorted to force. Furthermore, instead of consulting Congress as the War Powers Resolution required, Ford "informed" it of his decision to use force. He ordered air strikes on Cambodian bases and marine commandos to rescue forty crew members already out of danger at the cost of eighteen marines and twenty-three Air Force personnel dead. Ford's popularity zoomed upward because, as Senator Barry Goldwater commented, he had not allowed "some half-assed country" to kick him around. Admirers of the strong presidency called the venture Ford's finest moment. Critics denounced this "indulgence in machismo diplomacy" as "another example of military overkill and trigger happiness." Once more, a supposedly weak president, without significant restraint by law or Congress, for personal benefit used his foreign affairs power to magnify a minor incident into an unnecessary crisis.
In his bid for the presidency, Jimmy Carter promised a foreign policy that would distinguish the United States as "a beacon light for human rights throughout the world." He also denounced covert military operations and intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. The foreign policy crisis that most bedeviled Carter's administration began with the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran. In November 1979 the trouble escalated when a mob in Teheran invaded the American embassy and seized a hundred people as hostages. When Carter failed to obtain their release through diplomacy and the crisis threatened to torpedo his chances for reelection, he decided on force in his capacity as commander in chief. He did not consult Congress, because, he contended, in this instance the War Powers Resolution did not apply. As had other presidents involved in questionable military strikes, he claimed an "inherent constitutional right" to act unilaterally. So, on his orders, on 24 April 1980, a commando group attempted by air to rescue the hostages. The operation failed, and much of the public viewed it as fiasco. Carter did not, as some advisers urged, try to smother his failure with a massive show of force and possibly war.
A civil war in Afghanistan followed by a massive invasion of Soviet troops also led Carter to shift his attitude toward the use of his power in foreign affairs. He imposed sanctions on the Soviet Union and, when they did not work as desired, exaggerated the Soviet threat to American security. He warned the Soviets that if they seized the Persian Gulf, war would follow. When European allies opposed this bellicosity, Carter pulled back. He then embarked on a program of supposedly covert aid to the Afghans. Carter exhibited less reluctance to use force in perceived low-risk, undercover interventions in Central America and Africa. Despite his tough moments, Carter did use foreign policy power effectively but for human rights and peace rather than for war.
In campaigning for the presidency, Ronald Reagan disparaged Carter for bungling the Iranian crisis, described the Vietnam War as a noble cause, promised to deal harshly with terrorists, and declared he would regenerate American pride. He pictured communism as a monolithic enemy and the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." He said little about theories of executive power, even when in office. In foreign affairs matters that interested him, however, he was an activist, hands-on executive. Reagan began using his power promptly by directing the CIA to engage in domestic spying, clandestine foreign ventures, and surveillance of Americans abroad. Within three years, he launched more than fifty covert operations, more than half of them in Central and South America. He claimed, in a form of intervention that became known as the Reagan Doctrine, the right to support with arms and other means "people fighting for their freedom against Communism wherever they were." Most international jurists regarded this globalism untenable in law.
Reagan applied his doctrine most tenaciously in Nicaragua, where, starting in March 1981, he ordered the CIA to conduct military operations against a Marxist government. The agency created an army of military adventurers and anticommunists in Honduras, called contras, from the abbreviation in Spanish for counterrevolutionaries, to carry out this mission. When the intervention became known in the United States, several legislators charged Reagan with violating the War Powers Act, but he persisted with impunity. Finally, in three pieces of legislation known as the Boland Acts, Congress cut off direct executive aid to the contras.
At the same time, in a quarrel with Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, Reagan, as commander in chief, ordered the Sixth Fleet to Libyan waters. In a violent confrontation, it destroyed two Libyan warplanes. Reagan again defied the War Powers Resolution by twice deploying hundreds of troops in Lebanon to aid a conservative government fighting a civil war. After the fact, Congress approved this commitment. Rebels in Beirut attacked the troops, and U.S. warships shelled rebel positions. In October 1983 a rebel suicide bomber in a truck crashed through the American compound, slaughtering 241 marines. In December, after a minor confrontation, U.S. forces struck at Syria. Fearing that the casualties would become a damaging issue in the forthcoming presidential election, Reagan reluctantly removed the troops from the area.
Earlier the president had manufactured another crisis, this one on the island of Grenada in the Caribbean, reputedly to divert attention from the Beirut losses. He intervened there with some 2,000 troops to oust a far-left regime that, he said, without substantiation, threatened the lives of American students living there. He again violated the War Powers Act but defended his unilateral violence as within his power as commander in chief. Some Democrats demanded enforcement of the law and seven asked for impeachment, but Congress stood by the president. He called the events in Lebanon and Grenada "closely linked," because "Moscow assisted and encouraged the violence in both countries." Polls showed that Americans, by a margin of 90 percent, approved his bashing of Grenada.
Later, again on meager evidence, Reagan blamed Qaddafi for the bombing of a disco in Berlin frequented by American servicemen. In retaliation, he ordered the bombing of Benghazi, killing scores of civilians but not the dictator. Jurists maintained Reagan had unilaterally carried out an act of war, and again violated the War Powers Act. Similarly, in his proxy war in Nicaragua, he breached international law by having the CIA lay magnetic mines in three of that nation's harbors. Later, the International Court of Justice at The Hague found the United States guilty of an unlawful use of force. Reagan dismissed the condemnation without qualm.
Finally, the president's illegal use of his foreign policy power led to negative repercussions. Congress had banned the export of arms to Iran, but Reagan's subordinates secretly sold it weapons to finance the undercover contras, contrary to the Boland laws. They also used some of the money for ransom for release of American hostages in Lebanon. When details of this Iran-Contra affair leaked to the public, the president's popularity plummeted. Some legislators again talked of impeachment. Initially, Reagan denied knowledge of the affair. Later, he admitted that the decision to trade arms for hostages was his. Senate and House investigating committees concluded he had been responsible, but neither Congress nor the courts held him accountable for his illicit actions.
Reagan continued to use force in the Persian Gulf, in Nicaragua, and indirectly in covert aid in Afghanistan against the Russians. When the Russians withdrew in 1988, he and his aides touted their retreat as a victory for the Reagan Doctrine. When he left office, harsh critics stood by their characterization of him as an amiable dunce, but most of the public thought differently. It overlooked or forgave his illicit behavior to view him as a decisive leader who had regained for the presidency much of the foreign relations power it presumably had lost in the Watergate scandal.
In contrast to Reagan, George H. W. Bush initially seemed bland, but he sought to demonstrate qualities as a strong, activist leader in a clash with the small-time Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega, who had been on the payroll of Washington intelligence agencies but lost favor because of criminal activity. The Reagan administration had imposed economic sanctions against Panama, and Bush quickly assigned high priority to Noriega's removal, through various means including a coup. This strategy fizzled, leading hard-liners to speak of executive weakness.
When questioned about ousting the dictator, Bush answered, "Well, I want as broad a power as possible, and I think under the Constitution the President has it." He "has broad powers, broader than some in the Senate or the House might think." On this assumption, Bush exploited a clash between Panamanian soldiers and two American servicemen as a reason to resort openly to force. On 15 December 1989, on his own as commander in chief, he ordered the invasion of Panama. Six weeks later, U.S. troops captured Noriega. Ultimately a U.S. court tried, convicted, and jailed him.
Many Americans asked why this massive force over a minor quarrel? The president came up with a variety of answers, including self-defense, upholding democracy, and protecting American lives. Skeptics dismissed the arguments as flimsy, pointing out that virtually every day in some part of the world somebody harassed Americans. To safeguard them or uphold nascent democracy everywhere with bayonets would commit the nation to endless hostilities. They accused Bush of using violence politically to dispel the wimp factor. The General Assembly of the United Nations condemned the invasion as a "flagrant violation" of international law, but Americans overwhelmingly approved the muscle-flexing. Hence, only a few legislators challenged the president's defiance of the War Powers Act. The House even passed a resolution praising him for his decisive action.
Seemingly intoxicated by such commendation, the president turned on another international villain, Iraq's Saddam Hussein. On 2 August 1990, some 80,000 Iraqi troops invaded and quickly overran Kuwait. Properly condemning the invasion as "naked aggression," Bush took the lead in a movement to reverse it. The American public and the United Nations supported him in a policy of sanctions against Hussein. Impatiently, Bush decided sanctions took too long to work, prepared for war, and claimed he did not need congressional assent before taking military action. Many legislators disagreed. Senator Daniel P. Moynihan of New York pointed out that "the great armed force" created to fight the Cold War was now "at the president's own disposal for any diversion he may wish, no matter what it costs." Undeterred, Bush insisted that "I have the right, as commander in chief, to fulfill my responsibilities, and I'm going to safeguard those executive powers." Fifty-four legislators filed suit in a federal court to prohibit the president from using force without congressional authorization. The court ruled the suit premature but reiterated that only Congress could declare war. Still, Bush announced that no matter what Congress or the people had to say, he would decide for or against war. As had various predecessors, he cited flawed precedents for presidential war-making. Most of the media sided with him.
Finally, the president gave in to pressure from advisers not to defy Congress but to persuade it to go along with him. He asked for a resolution approving force but not for a declaration of war. Congress agreed and on a partisan vote narrowly passed such a measure, thus sanctioning a presidential war. On 16 January 1991 he led the nation into war. Two days later, he informed Congress of his action, in a manner, he said, "consistent with the War Powers Resolution." In the Gulf War of 1991, the U.S. military juggernaut blasted the Iraqis into a lopsided defeat, Bush's popularity rating zoomed to an unprecedented height, and he bathed in the glory of a Caesar.
During Bush's term, the Soviet Union broke up, the Cold War ended, and ethnic strife tore apart Yugoslavia. He campaigned for reelection as a successful war leader and the master of an aggressive foreign policy, who, along with Reagan, had finalized the winning of the Cold War. But he lost. Nonetheless, as a lame duck president, he once more exercised his power as commander in chief. For humanitarian reasons, or what he called "God's work," he intervened in Somalia, torn apart by civil war and famine. He ordered more than 30,000 troops to take "whatever action is necessary" to carry out their mission. As various analysts noted, Bush with his war-making pushed the presidential power in foreign affairs to its outer limits.