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Time to Re-Boot the War Debate in Congress

Last month, Fox News host Tucker Carlson engaged in a raucous debate on air [1] 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.  

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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 [2], 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.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Time to Re-Boot the War Debate in Congress"

#1 Comment By Ardmore PA On August 6, 2017 @ 11:27 pm

Carlson nailed it. Boot should be sent back to frigging Russia. Why in God’s name did we let him in in the first place?

But that seems to be what our “foreign policy establishment” is these days. A bunch of foreigners telling Americans what to do. And it’s worked out really well, hasn’t it?

#2 Comment By spite On August 7, 2017 @ 7:10 am

Based on recent actions, if Congress did really debate this, then outcome more likely be a Congress that openly forced the president to go to more wars. I am not saying this sarcastically or using hyperbole, I really believe that Congress would be pushing for more war, they would would call it something like “Spread Democracy Act” which makes it the law to go to war to any state they do not consider “democratic” (i.e. not under US control).

#3 Comment By Scott_api On August 7, 2017 @ 8:15 am

I think you miss the point here. The GOP controls Congress and the White House. GOP foreign policy, just like GOP domestic policy, can be summed up thusly – “That which makes the Democrats angry/sad/apoplectic shall be our preferred policy going forward” This policy requires no debate on the house floor, and no real analysis. You just do it. When Congress and the White House change hands (which they will at some point) the policy will remain the same, just reversed. Voters reward it.

#4 Comment By Jon S On August 7, 2017 @ 9:35 am

Following the collapse of the USSR, the USA determined that there would be a New World Order. This NWO would end warfare by establishing a global, peaceful world of free trade, immigration, respect for the law and respect for intellectual property.

American banks could expect repayment of loans. American corporation could set up factories anywhere on the planet, and governments would ensure workers are educated, disciplined and competitively compensated.

However, not all countries leaders desired to be a part of the NWO. And as we all know, one bad apple can spoil the rest. So it is the responsibility of the US military to remove those who oppose our noble ambitions.

The fact that the US military has thus far been unable to impose the NWO on the rest of the planet is a problem. However, what this article is really calling for is whether the problem is the strategy of the NWO, versus the competency of the military. The question is do we need to continue to tweak our military tactics, or do we need to abandon our noble ambitions.

#5 Comment By John Gruskos On August 7, 2017 @ 10:19 am

Scott_api,

The only three members of the House of Representatives who voted against the new Russia sanctions were John Duncan, Thomas Massie, and Justin Amash.

Foreign policy sanity exists within American politics only on the far right.

#6 Comment By Michael Kenny On August 7, 2017 @ 10:40 am

As Jimmy Carter liked to say, here we go again! Yet another author who thought Trump had promised to capitulate to Putin on all fronts: “Unfortunately, the Trump Administration’s foreign policy has not fully reflected candidate Trump’s foreign policy promises”. As Mr Smith himself makes clear, Trump says everything and the contrary of everything and he heard what he wanted to hear and believed what he wanted to believe.

#7 Comment By Dan Green On August 7, 2017 @ 10:41 am

Obama’s primary effort while in office was to get us out of wars. Wars we never win. American people when finally allowed to see flag draped caskets coming home often to Arlington turned us off of misguided wars , always marketed as protecting our interest. With the Trump administration loading up with retired Military Generals , Russia on a mission to take back the prior Soviet Union, and a nut case in NK supported and financed by China, it will indeed be interesting what occurs going forward.

#8 Comment By Fred Bowman On August 7, 2017 @ 10:47 am

Unfortunately the business of Empire IS War. And the United States IS an Empire. Thus American Congress will never seriously discuss our constant State of War until such a time until our country suffers a major and humiliating defeat which essentially will destroy the American Empire. Unfortunately when it does, it will also destroy what’s left of the American Republic. What comes in the aftermath is anybody’s guess but I’m guessing it won’t be won’t be pretty.

#9 Comment By Robert Charron On August 7, 2017 @ 11:00 am

This illustrates a deficiency in a democratic form of government. Responsibility is diffused, allowing a few in Congress to control the majority of members of Congress, by means of party discipline. We Americans extol the virtues of freedom, yet most Congress members are not free. If they speak their minds they end up like Dennis Kucinich. American public opinion is controlled by the corporate media. Americans extol individualism, but exhibit a herd mentality. They like to be accepted by their group, so they echo what they discern as their group’s beliefs. They feel a need to belong to some larger group. Americans are urged to seek unity which tends to discourage anyone from departing from what their friends and from what the members of the corporate media are hawking. Americans tend to get mad at anyone who disagrees with what they believe, they do not encourage independent thinking, as that disturbs “unity.” In a democracy “unity” is the highest form of patriotism. Note how Democrats and Republicans are regularly enjoined to work together. And in reality today there is not a lot of difference between them on a lot of key issues. They differ mainly on whose backers will get favored by the government.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 7, 2017 @ 12:06 pm

I will maintain my constant whine. Over the last several years what has become apparent is that changing the WH leadership is not enough. What is required is the admission that our process of leadership selection may be as broken as Congress itself.

The elite model has been wavering on the success meter for more than twenty years. And we had better consider changing it from the bottom up.

I m ever troubled by my selections comments about the rich being able to run the economy. In light of recent history, I found that very troubling. I am just not impressed with stock prices. I appreciate the market, but time and time again, what happens on WS does not reflect what is happening in the interior to any depth.

In my view the elites are running out of steam on creative solutions that are robust enough to breed solutions even if said solutions don’t come out of that initial offering. This is where I think the admin still has power. I don’t appreciate the insider dealings on the East India suggestion, nor do I think it’s a valid comparison — but it offers something that stirs one critical thinking juices.

Imagine bargaining with these various Taliban leaders for mineral rights in which the people who own it pay an outside agency to do the work and earn some percentage with the bulk going to the various Talibani communities. As a mans of resolving conflict — feeding one’s family is a tried and true method.

The healthcare issue might actually produce some way forward, if members would do the work as opposed to some corporate sponsored think tank. But until we unhinge the revolving door of the elite educational system feeding itself in every leadership area, we will never know.

I think Congress is over paid and over privileged. There’s no incentive to wrestle deeper. Now it be that they are overworked.

#11 Comment By Jeeves On August 7, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

“Donald Trump tried to change all this”??

Don’t make me laugh. He knows as much about foreign policy and making war as he knows about health care. Which is to say, nothing.

Dismissing his prior vocal support for the Iraq war as just some minor quibble is like trying to ignore the fact that Donald Trump has been a Democrat most of his life. That anyone would expect consistency from this opportunist is breathtakingly naive.

#12 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 7, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

America’s war footprint broadens simply because the business of America has become more firmly the business of war. At this point, it is enormously profitable for the very large concerns whose profits are derived from war. We don’t seem to recognize how dependent we have become on a war economy as everything else downsized and offshored. Ending war would be, in the sort term, an economic disaster to both corporate profits and employment, a double political whammy no politician considering ending them could survive. In the short term, expanding wars are profitable economically and politically. In the long term? As Galbraith put it, we’re all dead.

#13 Comment By Will Harrington On August 7, 2017 @ 2:33 pm

Scott_api, then how do you account for the fact that, while rhetoric over the last sixteen years bears you out, actual foreign policy has been pretty consistent?

#14 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 7, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

For those who missed “Tucker Carlson and Max Boot’s acrimonious debate” here is the link. The discussion kicks off with a minute-long Tucker Carlson exchange with Lt. Col. Ralph Peters and is followed by a remark from CNN’s Robert Baer. The Tucker vs. Max segment runs from 1:45-10:29:

#15 Comment By Ken T On August 7, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Mr. Smith, I was in complete agreement with you right up until the two paragraphs that begin “Donald Trump tried to change all this”.

At no moment during the campaign or since did Donald Trump ever express anything resembling a coherent foreign policy. The “schizophrenic quality” you describe IS Donald Trump. Every single contradiction you cite was present in every single speech, every single policy statement, every single tweet that has emerged from his brain at any time in the last two years.

#16 Comment By cka2nd On August 8, 2017 @ 12:14 am

Dan Green says: “Obama’s primary effort while in office was to get us out of wars.”

Hah hah hah hah hah! Tell that to the people of Libya, Syria and Afghanistan.

Dan Green says: “With…Russia on a mission to take back the prior Soviet Union”

What has Russia annexed besides Crimea, with the overwhelming support of its population, by the way? It didn’t even annex Georgia after the 2008 war.

Dan Green says: …and a nut case in NK supported and financed by China”

#17 Comment By cka2nd On August 8, 2017 @ 12:18 am

Oops.

Dan Green says: …and a nut case in NK supported and financed by China”

“Supported and financed by China” only to prevent a huge wave of North Korean refugees from crossing the border. Or a nuclear cloud from crossing the border. Or the United States from setting up military bases on the Chinese border.