The Presidents’ War(s)

Once again, Congress abdicates to the president on an unwinnable war.

Stephen R. Weissman

On February 14, a Marine gears up for a mission northeast of Marjah, a town that has been controlled for years by the Taliban and drug traffickers. (Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

The year-long debate over healthcare reform legislation produced a tidal wave of criticism of the dysfunctional” American Congress. Almost everyone agreed that the lawmaking process was damaged by excessive partisanship, overuse of minority filibusters and backroom dealings. 

Yet last year, President Barack Obama decided to dispatch additional troops to Afghanistan (21,000 in March and 30,000 in December), bringing the total to 100,000 by the end of this year – with no congressional debate or legislative guidance. But hardly anyone has complained about this example of congressional dysfunction,” even as U.S. fatalities since 2001 approach 1,000 (about 400 under Obama) and the financial burden has risen to more than $100 billion for this fiscal year alone.

This silence is amazing since past administrations acting without congressional input made huge mistakes in America’s last big wars – mistakes that proved devastating to the parties in power. Both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged that the interventions in Vietnam and Iraq were either misconceived or significantly mismanaged. And there is general agreement that Congress should have tested flawed policy assumptions, held decision-makers more accountable and enlisted more sustained public support for better policies.

One might have expected current members of Congress to draw the appropriate lessons for Afghanistan. Instead, Congress has been reenacting its performances from Vietnam and Iraq. For example, during an exchange on the House floor in March, leading Democratic speakers emphasized that Congress’s authorization of force against those involved in 9/11 was worded generally enough to allow the President to send tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan eight-and-a-half years later on a broader mission. No one in the House seemed to recall the parallel to Vietnam when President Lyndon B. Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to intimidate another Democratic Congress into acquiescing to his escalation of the war.

Failure to use intelligence

With the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, which detailed U.S. decision-making in Vietnam, Congress and the public discovered that the CIA and U.S. intelligence community had long been skeptical about the prospects for success in Vietnam. Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had received leaked copies of the papers two years earlier and asked the Nixon administration to declassify them. After repeated rejections, Fulbright did nothing to mobilize congressional and public support for necessary disclosure, thereby weakening the Democratic Congress’s ability to raise questions about President Richard Nixon’s policies.

Congress started out more boldly in Iraq. In the fall of 2002, as a critical vote on the use of force approached, the Senate Intelligence Committee requested and received a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) regarding Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – the principal rationale for regime change.” A copy was made available to all members of Congress, and the Committee also extracted a declassified summary of key judgments” that was open to the public. But then Congress dropped the ball. Rushed by the Bush administration and by Democratic and Republican leaders (House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) ) to make decisions within days, Congress didn’t take the time to review and discuss the obvious analytical weakness of the document – apparent even in the declassified version – that purported to demonstrate the threat of Iraqi WMD to the United States and its allies.

Afghanistan represents a clear step backward. According to several people close to Congress who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as late as March members of the key congressional foreign policy committees dealing with foreign affairs, intelligence and defense had neither requested nor received a NIE or comparable broad intelligence community analysis of issues in Afghanistan. They therefore denied themselves what has always been a major resource of Congress in foreign policy: the ability to compare intelligence analysis with executive branch policy judgments. This failure of Congress to demand – and of the Obama administration to provide – at least a partially declassified NIE on Afghanistan stands in stark contrast to the Bush administration’s willingness to publicly release parts of NIEs on such sensitive subjects as Iran, Iraq and terrorism.

Policy divisions ignored

Both the Pentagon Papers and the history of the Vietnam War reveal a large gap between what some leading Johnson administration policymakers – and even Vice President Hubert Humphrey – actually thought and what the administration told Congress and the public. Similarly, during the Bush administration, Congress ignored State Department and military planners’ concerns about instability in post-invasion Iraq – at great cost to U.S. objectives. In both cases Congress failed to ferret out, evaluate and respond to these internal disagreements.

In the case of Afghanistan, Congress fumbled a golden opportunity to assess U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s dissent from Obama’s Dec. 1, 2009 decision in favor of a U.S. military surge.” When news leaked of two November cables from Eikenberry to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing deep concerns about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” one foreign policy committee requested the classified Eikenberry documents, according to an informed source. The State Department responded that the committee needed to provide identifying information, including the exact numbers of the cables. When these proved impossible to come by, the committee quietly gave up. It never considered threatening to subpoena the documents.

After Obama announced his decision to deploy an additional 30,00034,000 troops to support a new counterinsurgency strategy, Eikenberry testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that as a result of refinement” and clarification” he was now 100 percent supportive” of administration strategy. No one, neither Democrats nor Republicans, pressed him to describe the basis of his reported reservations and how they were resolved.

In late January, as American troops began to move into Afghanistan, the full text of the cables was leaked to the New York Times. It showed how fundamental Eikenberry’s critique was and how much grist for public debate had been ignored.

Compared to other U.S. policy makers, Eikenberry, who had previously served as the U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, had an unusually deep exposure to the local environment.

In his cables to Clinton, Eikenberry complained about unaddressed variables” in the administration’s review of strategy. He appealed for a review that would consider the opinions of civilian and military experts,” including bipartisan political figures.” He requested deeper” consultations with regional and NATO allies. And he emphasized that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not an adequate strategic partner” because he continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden.”

Further, he said, It strains credulity to expect Karzai to change fundamentally.” Beyond Karzai, he concluded, there is no political ruling class that provides an overarching national identity.” In addition to pervasive corruption,” the Karzai regime had little or no political will or capacity to carry out basic tasks of governance.” In such circumstances, America’s goal of transferring” counterinsurgency gains to Afghan authorities risked leaving us with no way to extricate ourselves” from Afghanistan.

The administration’s review of the Afghanistan situation, Eikenberry wrote, also failed to adequately address Taliban insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan; the difficulties of creating adequate Afghan security forces in even five years; military-civil coordination problems; the potential for reconciliation and integration; and our national will to bear the human and financial costs over many years.”

Even after the the ambassador’s critique was published in the New York Times, members of the key congressional committees failed to voice any public reaction to this extraordinary assessment by the highest ranking U.S. civilian on the ground. (Why, in the face of Eikenberry’s advice, Obama decided to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan to 100,000 remains to be explored.)

Cozying up to the president

During the Vietnam War, leading Democratic Senators communicated their deep concerns and disagreement with Vietnam policy to Johnson in private. They were part of a Cold War-inspired culture of congressional deference to the president on foreign policy. And clearly, they wanted to avoid doing anything that might undermine their party leader’s political standing. 

Eventually, in 1973, the public reaction to the cumulative costs of the expanding Vietnam War forced the Democratic Congress to challenge the Nixon administration, but by that time U.S. military forces had already left Vietnam. 

Three decades later, many Democratic Senators suppressed their doubts about allowing Bush to go to war against Iraq. They accepted at face value the Republican administration’s assurances, frequently offered in private conversations, that it would emphasize diplomatic approaches to securing alleged WMD in Iraq.

As with Vietnam, the emphasis on communicating with, rather than controlling, the president was viewed as both good politics – the Democratic majority feared Republican attacks on their softness” would hurt them in coming midterm elections – and consistent with a half century of giving the president the benefit of the doubt in foreign policy,” as Senate Majority Leader Daschle expressed it. When an Iraq civil war erupted in 2005 and American casualties rose, Democrats and some Republicans tried to limit U.S. military involvement. But they were unable to overcome appeals to support our troops” and filibusters by Senate Republicans.

Probably no Senator is better informed about Afghanistan than Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). His chairmanship of the weakened but still prestigious Foreign Relations Committee, status as a former Democratic Presidential nominee, and still-remembered denunciation of the Vietnam War give him considerable potential political influence on Afghanistan policy.

On Oct. 26, 2009, a month before Obama decided on the surge, Kerry (who had just had extensive discussions with Eikenberry in Kabul and helped the administration secure Karzai’s agreement to a runoff presidential contest) warned that Commanding General Stanley McCrystal’s 40,000-troop request and counterinsurgency plan reaches too far too fast.” He said, We do not yet have the critical guarantees of governance and of development capacity … [and the] ability to produce effective Afghan forces to partner with.”

Yet when Obama approved the essentials of McCrystal’s plan without such guarantees, Kerry declined to voice any reservations or to insist upon a committee debate and vote. According to press reports and interviews, Kerry chose to rely instead on what an informed source called his continuous” private conversations with Obama and administration officials. He thought that his advice contributed to more realistic, achievable goals” and a recognition that U.S. involvement should not drag on forever.” Even if this were true, it fell far short of Kerry’s previous demands. (One is reminded here of Kerry’s lamentation two years after giving Bush carte blanche to deal with Saddam Hussein: I believed,” he said.)

In the House, Democrats attempted to protect the president by refusing to voicetheir doubts or by muting criticism. For example, only after the president’s decision to expand the war in Afghanistan did Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the low-key but astute chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, express a view that was significantly less optimistic than that of the administration. I am keenly aware that even if we remain in Afghanistan, and here I want to emphasize this, there is no guarantee we will prevail in this fight,” he said in March.

One House insider was struck by the degree to which Democratic critics of the Afghan War expressed themselves vehemently in private meetings of the Democratic Caucus, but softened their opposition in public hearings to protect their president.

Democratic critics of the Afghan war expressed themselves vehemently in private meetings, but softened their opposition in public to protect their president.
The failure to make law

While neither the Senate nor the House have held full-scale legislative debates or votes on U.S. policy in Afghanistan, congressional committees did hold a number of public hearings. But their value was limited by the committees’ unwillingness to assume their full legislative roles. For example, foreign travel by members of Congress and their staffs can further independent inquiry, as it has in places like the Philippines, El Salvador and South Africa. Yet legislators have meekly accepted increasingly stringent Defense Department restrictions on congressional delegations in Afghanistan. Limited to a single overnight stay in the country per trip, members and staff tend to spend one day in meetings in Kabul with American and Afghan officials and a second day with U.S. troops outside the capital. After that, no time is left for contacts with non-official Afghans, journalists and researchers who could offer broader perspectives.

In addition, committee hearings provide opportunities to learn from nongovernmental experts with diverse views. Yet neither the Senate Foreign Relations nor the House Foreign Affairs Committee have requested testimony from the foremost experts on Afghan politics. The latter include Gilles Dorronsoro (see The Case for Negotiations,” p. 14) of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Antonio Giustozzi of the London School of Economics – two academics whose extensive writings provide detailed support for many of Eikenberry’s reservations.

Congressional staff reports can spur public discussion by providing valuable information and analysis. Yet in the last two years the foreign affairs committees have published only a single staff report on Afghanistan – and that dealt with the U.S. counter-narcotics program. No committees have tried to project the possible financial costs of the war. (Based on administration requests and partial analyses by the Congressional Budget Office and Congressional Research Service, these costs could easily total $400 billion over the next four fiscal years – not counting tens of billions more for reconstitution” and reset” of weapons, equipment and troop numbers, medical and disability costs, and interest on unfunded federal debt.)

Most significantly, in the case of Afghanistan, congressional hearings no longer function as part of a broad legislative process to expand public debate, force members of Congress to think through issues and take positions, and supply policymakers with legislative guidance. Instead, hearings have been perverted into a way of evading congressional responsibility. Staff members for several Democratic senators were emphatic on this point. One said, People don’t want to own it [Afghanistan policy]. The default is to express concern.’  ” Another put it this way: Many members made [critical] statements at the hearing that they can spin later as saying they offered criticism.” A third observed, People are unclear where they stand. They want to wait and see. Hearings are a good way.” A fourth seemed to sum it all up while suggesting the alternative: Afghanistan has difficult questions, no easy answers. The bigger issue is that members are on the fence in practice. It’s better if they are forced to vote.” 

Although Republicans were generally in favor of the administration’s position in Afghanistan, many saw hearings as a way of registering concerns about the administration’s steadfastness rather than a vehicle for promoting expanded debate and future legislative action.

There was a legislative debate of sorts in March when Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) persuaded Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to allow him to offer a resolution requiring withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan either within 30 days or by the end of 2010. What ensued was a discussion that fell far short of a meaningful attempt to bring Congress into Afghanistan policy. As a Republican opponent observed, a serious” initiative would have included hearings and votes in the Foreign Affairs Committee. Furthermore, the process prohibited amendments that would have allowed a broader range of options to be considered.

Decades of negligence

Afghanistan is the one place on earth where Congress should have learned that abdicating its legislative role does not advance the national interest.

Under Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the CIA ran a major insurgency, along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, against Soviet forces propping up a Communist government. While the campaign was successful, it created an even bigger problem by channeling disproportional support to the militant Islamic forces (Afghan and non-Afghan) favored by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, fertilizing the ground for future terror attacks against the West. Even though the operation was large enough to be publicly visible, Congress treated it as a covert action,” exempt from normal legislative review. It was followed only by a small cadre from the intelligence committees who met with the administration behind closed doors.

One of those legislators, Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Texas), inspired by an attractive lobbyist for Pakistan, passionately supported expanding the program. The title of the bestselling book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War is hyperbolic, but the key point is that while Afghanistan was, in part, Charlie Wilson’s war, it was definitely not Congress’ war. There were no legislative debates or votes on this semi-open covert” action.

Congress also slept while President Bill Clinton stood by as the victorious Mujahiddin descended into civil war and a desperate population embraced the Paskistan-supported Taliban. When al Qaeda, hosted by the Afghan Taliban, launched its 9/11 attacks against the United States, Congress approved emergency war legislation leading to the overthrow of the Taliban government. But over the next seven years, as the Bush administration failed to make much progress toward an effective Afghan government or contain a revived Taliban insurgency, Congress did absolutely nothing.

Even without Congressional debate, polls suggest the country is divided over Afghanistan. President Obama told Congress that he will reassess his strategy in Afghanistan in December 2010. However issues concerning host government performance, political negotiations with insurgent groups, military strategy and the roles of regional actors are now arising without regard for the administration’s schedule – just as they did in Vietnam and Iraq.

As history teaches us, the United States should not wage war without informed democratic debate and collective decision-making. Only Congress can ensure that such a process takes place. Sadly, the legislative branch has been little more than a spectator to the Obama administration’s questionable, costly escalation of the Afghanistan war. Congress must get into the game now, before it is too late.

Stephen R. Weissman, former staff director of the House Subcommittee on Africa, is the author of two books on U.S. foreign policy, including A Culture of Deference: Congress’s Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy. His recent articles on U.S. policies towards Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Congo and South Africa have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Intelligence and National Security, Politico, Roll Call, The Hill and in Foreign Policy in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Security, Diplomacy and Trade, eds. Adekeye Adebajo and Kudrat Virk.
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