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.
Against the Cuban- and Soviet-backed Angolan government, the U.S. and white-ruled South Africa supported an insurgency led by “freedom fighter” Jonas Savimbi. Notwithstanding his paeans to liberal democracy, Savimbi turned out to be an authoritarian who murdered his dissenting colleagues. After the U.S. helped broker Cuban and South African withdrawals, Savimbi and the government agreed to a U.N.-supervised democratic election. But Savimbi refused to accept electoral defeat and returned to war. Using revenues from “blood diamond” mines his earlier CIA funding had enabled him to conquer, he financed a decade of destruction. By the time he was killed, America’s reputation in Africa had suffered a major blow.
Had U.S. officials been required to defend these flawed “overt-covert” programs in public — and subject them to continuing congressional votes — there is a reasonable chance they would have been at least modified and damage to American interests limited. Instead, they were discussed in secret by the congressional intelligence committees, which did nothing to address their fundamental defects. This was largely the result of the claustrophobic process that closets together a select coterie of officials entrusted with secret information and a small group of legislators who are virtually isolated from outside experts, constituents, colleagues, staff with relevant experience, and administration figures holding dissenting views.
I got a sense of this dysfunctional process in 1990 when, as staff director of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, I worked with our members to bypass secret decision-making. They helped enact legislation that provided incentives for mutual reductions of Soviet and U.S. military assistance and encouraged a settlement through elections. During the battle, I discovered that half the Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, who had earlier voted against lifting a legislative prohibition on covert aid in Angola, had become supporters of the CIA program. Only when the issue was opened up to public debate and votes did they resume their critical perspective.
As it considers the president’s narrowly described but potentially expandable request — remember what happened in Libya where the United Nations authorized “protecting civilians” and Obama told the nation, “Broadening our mission to include regime change would be a mistake” — Congress should reopen its foreign policy toolbox, fashioning a response that is part of a well-conceived U.S. strategy toward the Syrian conflict. Led by its Foreign Affairs committees, it should conduct searching public hearings that include the broad variety of informed U.S. and international perspectives on Syria policy; commission expert staff reports on the key issues; and conduct a public debate culminating in the enactment of binding law.
In the past several years, Congress essentially took a pass on the president’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. A legislature that refuses to defend its constitutional role in foreign policy, even against an absurd oxymoron (“overt-covert action”), and abdicates its responsibility to help safeguard America’s national security interests, cannot maintain its self-respect, let alone that of the American people.
Stephen R. Weissman is the author of “A Culture of Deference: Congress’s Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy.”