In January 2007, with no public debate, congressional hearings, or news coverage, the United States intervened militarily in another country: Somalia.
On December 24, 2006, supported by U.S. tactical intelligence, military training, and "less than a dozen" special operations forces on the ground, Ethiopia had invaded Somalia with the goal of unseating the ruling Council of Islamic Courts (CIC). As the Ethiopian ground offensive quickly overwhelmed CIC defenses surrounding the capital of Mogadishu, Somali militants and al-Qaeda affiliates fled south. Some were tracked by U.S. Predator drones and cell phone intercepts.
Two weeks later, a U.S. Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunship flying out of eastern Ethiopia fired at a convoy of suspected militants near the village of Ras Kamboni in southern Somalia. The targets were senior al Qaeda operatives allegedly involved in the East African U.S. embassy bombings in August 1998. However, Ethiopian troops and U.S. special operations forces that arrived after the attack confirmed that the targets were not in the convoy, although ten other suspected Somali militants were killed. As an American official later acknowledged, "Frankly, I don't think we know who we killed."
After news broke of the U.S. military involvement in Somalia, Sen. Robert Byrd had the following exchange with Gen. Peter Pace, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a Armed Services Committee hearing:
BYRD: Under what authority were the airstrikes in Somalia executed?
PACE: Under the authority of the president of the United States, sir.
BYRD: What authority did he have? What did he base his authority on?
PACE: There was an order that was published a couple of years ago that received the proper authorities from the secretary of defense and the president to be able to track al Qaeda and other terrorist networks worldwide, sir.
BYRD: Do you think that authority was sufficient?
PACE: I do, sir, from both -- I do, sir.
This incident of congressional oversight over a president's war-making powers is revealing in its brevity and rarity. Since September 11, 2001, the president has been able to threaten or use military force to achieve a range of foreign policy objectives with few checks and balances or sustained media coverage -- to an extent unprecedented in U.S. history. Anything short of deploying large numbers of U.S. ground troops is tolerated, and any executive branch justification for using lethal force is broadly accepted, including the notion that such military operations can continue in perpetuity.
Though both of the presidential candidates claim to want a peaceful world (Mitt Romney used some version of "peace" 12 times in the final presidential debate), it is unlikely that the United States will ever have a peacetime president again.