Weissman: Congress Is Abdicating Its Authority on Wars

Posted April 23, 2010 at 5:42pm

One reason for the current confusion over U.S. policy toward the Karzai government in Afghanistan is that U.S. decision-making has not been the result of a meaningful democratic process.

[IMGCAP(1)]The yearlong debate over health care reform legislation produced a tidal wave of criticism of the “dysfunctional” American Congress. In the same period, President Barack Obama dispatched more than 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan with essentially no legislative debate. But hardly anyone has complained about Congressional dysfunction here.

This silence is amazing because it is widely accepted that past administrations, acting without Congressional input, made huge mistakes in America’s last two major wars. And these eventually proved devastating to the parties in power. Both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged that interventions in Vietnam and Iraq were either misconceived or significantly mismanaged. After each, there was a sense that Congress could have done more to test flawed policy assumptions and hold decision-makers accountable, enlisting sustained public support for better policies. Yet despite different concerns about Afghanistan policy on both sides of the aisle, Congress has been re-enacting its performances in Vietnam and Iraq.

According to several officials, key Congressional foreign policy committees have neither received nor requested a National Intelligence Estimate or comparable broad intelligence community analysis of the issues in Afghanistan. They have denied themselves a major resource of Congress in foreign policy: the ability to compare intelligence analysis with administration policy judgments. In Iraq, the Senate at least requested and received an NIE; its mistake was in failing to examine the document and reveal its flaws.

Learning little from its failures to expose administration divisions over Vietnam and Iraq, Congress has fumbled a golden opportunity to assess the U.S. Embassy in Kabul’s last-minute dissent from the developing Dec. 1 decision for a U.S. military “surge.” When news leaked of two November cables from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry “expressing deep concerns about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” one key foreign policy committee requested the classified documents. The State Department refused to provide them, and the committee never considered using its subpoena power, according to an informed source. Eikenberry subsequently testified that after “refinement” and “clarification” he was now “100 percent supportive” of the president’s strategy. No Congressman from either party pressed him to describe the basis of his reported reservations or how they were resolved.

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 the ambassador’s critique was. Among several “unaddressed variables” in the new strategy, he emphasized that Afghan President Hamid Karzai “continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden … it strains credulity to expect Karzai to change fundamentally” and his government had “little or no political will or capacity to carry out basic tasks of governance.”

Even after the ambassador’s critique was published, there was no visible Congressional reaction.

A month before President Obama decided to add 30,000-34,000 troops, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) warned that Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan “reaches too far too fast. 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.” However, when the president essentially approved the plan without such guarantees, Kerry did not insist that his committee or Congress debate and vote on it. Instead, he chose to rely on what an informed source called his “continuous” private conversations with President Obama and the administration. That was the modus operandi of leading Democratic Senators in Vietnam and Iraq.

While there have been no full-scale legislative debates or votes on U.S. options, there have been hearings. But their educational value has been constrained by legislators’ meek acceptance of Defense Department restrictions limiting Members and staff to a single overnight stay in Afghanistan per trip as well as the failure of the foreign relations committees to call upon the leading academic experts on Afghan politics.

Most important, rather than functioning 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 and support, hearings have become a way of evading Congressional responsibility. Staff for several Democratic Senators — including one who opposed the troop increase — were very clear on this point: “People are unclear where they want to stand, they want to wait and see. Hearings are a good way!” “Many Members made [critical] statements at the hearing that they can spin later as saying they offered criticism.” “People don’t want to own it. The default is to ‘express concern.'” “Members are on the fence in practice. It’s better if they are forced to vote.”

President Obama has told Congress that he will reassess his strategy in December. However, issues concerning host government performance, military strategy, political negotiations and regional actors are coming up fast. If Congress is to play a meaningful role in Afghanistan, it needs to get in the game now.

Stephen R. Weissman is the author of “A Culture of Deference: Congress’s Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy” and a former subcommittee staff director on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.