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Congress’ consideration of President Barack Obama’s proposal for military action against Syrian regime targets will be sorely lacking unless it addresses this fundamental question: Is bombing Syria for its reported use of chemical weapons an effective option for furthering U.S. national security interests in the Syrian civil war? Regrettably, up to now Congress has neither debated nor voted on American policy toward the Syrian conflict. It will need more than a few days or a couple of weeks to formulate a thoughtful response to the president’s request. This shouldn’t be a problem since the latter has said U.S. strikes will be “effective” even “one month from now.”
But how has Congress managed to avoid tackling one of the biggest looming issues in U.S. foreign policy? Well, in June the administration publicly announced a new policy of providing weapons and other military support to the Syrian rebels but paradoxically designated it a CIA “covert action” that cannot be discussed by the public and may go forward without a congressional vote.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, has complained that the covert program “effectively prevents any real debate about U.S. policy in Syria.” Such debate is especially important because CIA paramilitary operations carry a high risk of escalation.
Corker has also noted that the openly declared “covert” operation in Syria “flies in the face of the statutory requirement that ‘the role of the United States Government ... not be apparent or acknowledged publicly’ in covert actions.”
The issue isn’t just Congress’ indifference to democratic process and disinclination to uphold the law. It’s also Congress’ continuing acquiescence in a demonstrably ineffective mechanism of secret war. For example, after reviewing five major CIA covert paramilitary operations, the 1975 Senate Church Committee investigation judged that four had failed to achieve their policy goals.
During the 1980s, the Reagan administration reacted to a congressional rebellion against CIA aid to the Contra insurgency in Nicaragua by inventing “overt-covert operations” for Afghanistan and Angola. As in Syria today, this involved a delicate effort to open the window on covert paramilitary action just enough to promote its virtues and pre-empt the shock of likely “leaks” while still avoiding congressional debates and votes. Yet both Reagan and Bush No. 41-era operations ended up harming U.S. security interests, despite their military achievements.
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to protect its local clients, the U.S. channeled military aid to the mujahedeen guerillas through seven religious political parties — with a preference for Islamic radicals said to be the best fighters. No assistance went to secular nationalist parties. Foreign jihadists flocked to the war. When the Soviets finally withdrew and the Afghan regime fell, the CIA left behind a fragmented country with its erstwhile proteges engaged in a vicious civil war. This paved the way for the rise of the fundamentalist Taliban regime, its hosting of al-Qaida foreign fighters and 9/11.