Time to Re-Boot the War Debate in Congress
By WILLIAM S. SMITH • August 6, 2017
Last month, Fox News host Tucker Carlson engaged in a raucous debate on air with foreign-policy analyst Max Boot. The July 12 Boot-Carlson debate was very acrimonious and yet, in a strange way, a relief to watch because this type of confrontation over American foreign policy is rare. The nation has been through years of disastrous military interventions, and the American public is overtly weary of these wars. Yet there has been little debate about the direction of American foreign policy, especially in the Congress.
In fact, the congressional leadership has engaged in serial evasion of their Article I responsibility to sanction military action. Consider the stunning development that occurred on June 29th when the House Appropriations Committee voted overwhelmingly to repeal the so-called AUMF, the Authorization for Use of Military Force, against those who perpetrated the September 11 attacks. The amendment to repeal AUMF was offered by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) but received overwhelming bipartisan support from GOP members such Scott as Taylor (R-Va.), a former Navy SEAL. Successful repeal of the AUMF would require Congress to debate and then affirmatively sanction any U.S. military actions around the world other than Iraq (which has its own AUMF), such as those in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen.
Yet when the Committee’s bill was brought to the floor recently, the GOP House leadership had magically stripped the Lee amendment out. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) claimed the amendment was “out of order” because it was legislating on an appropriations bill and the issue was properly the jurisdiction of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Speaker Ryan’s parliamentary probity is highly ironic as he was forced to use the highly dubious parliamentary practice of unilaterally directing the Rules Committee to make sections of a Committee-passed bill disappear without a vote.
This maneuver, called a “Rules Committee print,” is a recent leadership tactic that renders votes in committees as mere kabuki theater, since only the speaker decides what parts of a Committee-passed bill get to the floor. From a parliamentary perspective, the proper way to address the Lee amendment would have been for the Rules Committee to allow a floor amendment by the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman to strip the provision. But, that option was obviously unacceptable, as it would have instigated a debate on war and peace on the House floor and, more ominously, a vote.
The unwillingness of the Congress to debate war and peace has persisted for years. In 2013, for example, leaders in Congress refused even to consider President Obama’s request for the authority to conduct military action in Syria. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) dutifully filed Obama’s request as a Joint Resolution but neither branch voted on it. Therefore, ironically, President Obama took up a war in Syria that indirectly (and maybe directly) provided military assistance to elements of Al Qaeda—on the authority of a 2001 congressional resolution giving the president the authority to destroy Al Qaeda.
The underlying reason for the lack of debate is that the bipartisan foreign policy establishment has, since the end of the Cold War, been united in supporting an aggressive, even belligerent American foreign policy. Bush 41 invaded the Middle East with half a million troops to save a dubious Kuwaiti regime just when a peace dividend was in our grasp. President Clinton ramped up Bush’s intervention in Somalia (Black Hawk Down), and then launched wars in the Balkans that probably made the ethnic cleansing worse. Bush 43, of course, gets the gold ribbon of interventionism by creating widespread disorder in Middle East with the Iraq War. But even President Obama, the “peace candidate,” ramped up the war in Afghanistan (already a losing proposition), droned weddings and funerals across the Middle East, and launched wars in Somalia, Libya and Syria. These bipartisan policies killed or maimed tens of thousands of America’s best young people, killed or wounded hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, created millions of refugees, instigated a Christian pogrom, and spawned ghastly Islamic terrorist groups that now threaten the homeland.
After all these interventions, does the world feel safer? Despite the obvious answer, America’s elites still refuse to debate important foreign-policy questions. For example, had Jeb Bush been the 2016 GOP candidate, he certainly would have attacked Hillary Clinton about some minor (but nonetheless serious) tactical foreign-policy failures, such as Benghazi, but there would have been no debate about grand strategy. On grand strategy, both candidates would have agreed that the central principle of American foreign policy is to scan the world scene and look for dictators and other dragons to slay and then to rebuild slain peoples in America’s image. The effectiveness of this strategy is on display in the Middle East.
Donald Trump tried to change all this. When he called the Iraq War a “disaster” in the GOP debate, it was a foreign-policy-establishment-has-no-clothes moment. Rather than debate Trump’s consequential retorts about one of the greatest mistakes in American military history, the foreign-policy establishment and mainstream media furiously conducted “oppo” research about what Trump had said about the Iraq War on the Howard Stern Show in 2002. Thus “gotcha” quotes from a vulgar radio show is what passes for a debate on war and peace in Washington.
Unfortunately, the Trump Administration’s foreign policy has not fully reflected candidate Trump’s foreign policy promises. Instead, the presence of both establishment and populist figures within the administration has given Trump’s policies a schizophrenic quality: We do not seek to overthrow Assad but we bomb him; we feel NATO is obsolete but we are “huge” supporters of NATO; we want to get along with Russia but we are enemies of Russia. Finally, Trump cannot seem to decide upon a strategy in Afghanistan, where he is again torn between establishment proposals to send more troops and populist reticence about such proposals.
As Andrew Bacevich recently wrote in TAC, when it comes to America’s recent wars, the foreign policy and defense establishment have adopted a “willful amnesia.” The antidote to such amnesia should be a Congress willing to debate whether these awful wars deserve constitutional sanction. Our exhausted and courageous military deserves no less.
William S. Smith is research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America.