Study War Some More


Dear 112th Congress:

You are surely as inspired by events in Cairo, Tunis, and Benghazi as the rest of us. And you are surely as distressed by events in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as your fellow Americans. Now is as good a time as any to face a grim fact: you and your recent predecessors are abject failures at one of your most important constitutional responsibilities–dealing with war. But you can still redeem yourselves, and do your constituents and your country a historic good turn in the meantime.

The Constitution requires you to declare, provide for, budget, and oversee war and the forces necessary for it. There are few if any analysts who believe you ably perform these duties. Instead, with the exception of funding, you’ve ceded much of this authority to a succession of presidents from both parties only too eager to supplant you. And with war funding, Congress has been little more than a bipartisan rubber stamp for presidents. To make matters even worse, Congress “pays” for war with money borrowed from foreigners and from future generations of American taxpayers. War spending is not an “investment in the future” like your allocations for scientific research or green energy development. Congress would’ve provided a greater public service had it taken the trillion borrowed dollars wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan and started a giant bonfire with the money on the National Mall.

Your best attempt to rein in presidential war making—the War Powers Act—did not restore your authority or pride, and did not prevent your grievous mistakes after 9/11. With the exception of the one-time need for “authorizations of force,” and enormous semi-annual infusions of men, money, and materiel, presidents prefer to leave Congress out of the war equation.

Contrary to the refrain of the iconic African-American spiritual—it makes sense for legislators responsible for it to study war. Studies of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and of US military omnipresence around the world, constitute an invaluable and growing library. The studies, from a wide swath of think tanks and academic researchers across the political spectrum, show, virtually without exception, that it’d be much smarter and cheaper for Congress to end the wars and the omnipresence. Peace and a reduced global American military footprint would be diplomatically and politically, economically and culturally better for the country. Ending the wars would save American lives and those of other peoples. Closing bases overseas, and returning those forces to the US, will have the same local and regional economic benefits in those places that we’ve seen from conversion at home.

Neither of the current wars is or was necessary. There were and are alternatives. Nearing retirement, this is now the view of Defense Secretary Robert Gates too. Neither of the wars can be presently shown to do anything but harm to US national security.  Both ramped up—not reduced–the terrorist danger to America. Think about it: where’s the upside to ten years of war in Afghanistan (besides to war profiteers)? It reduces the jihadi threat to the Homeland? We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here? You’re kidding, right?

The Obama administration admits that al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is negligible. It also admits that war in Afghanistan inflames the border provinces of the neighbor to the east—if not the whole of Pakistan. It’s past time to declare victory in Afghanistan and bring all fighting forces home. If the war was about ending safe havens for terrorists in Afghanistan, then it’s succeeded. If it was about removing the Taliban regime, then it’s succeeded. If it was about showing American resolve and fortitude, then it’s worked. If it was about vengeance for 9/11, then it’s worked. If it was about helping deform Pakistani politics, then it’s worked. If it’s about making Afghanistan safe for Chinese and Indian enterprise, then it’s worked. If it was about stimulating the opium trade, then it’s worked. Etc. Remind me: why are we still there? Rather than afraid of ‘losing Afghanistan,’ President Obama appears afraid of winning.

The bloody road to freedom in the Middle East will likely lead to the demise of al-Qaeda. Much of the draw of al-Qaeda’s brand of jihad will disappear if and when popular rule comes to the lands from which it recruits. Why sneak away from your hometown to join al-Qaeda in the Mahgreb if you now have real prospects for meaningful political participation? As political and economic opportunity grows in the region, al-Qaeda’s allure for the young and alienated will shrink. As American troops come home from Iraq, a large chunk of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s reason for being evaporates. We’ll see the same trend in Afghanistan. Why let some fast-talking mullah lure you into the Taliban if you have educational and commercial alternatives, and the Americans are gone?

Remaining American forces in Iraq should be withdrawn on schedule, regardless of pressure from the Pentagon. No serious threat to the United States or its allies emanates today from Iraq. Rather than extend the US combat presence in Afghanistan to 2014 or beyond, as the current plan appears to (likely unbeknownst to you) Congress should help the President and Vice President deliver on their promise to begin withdrawal of US troops this summer.  Any additional funds you provide for the war beyond this fiscal year should be limited to ensuring the safe and orderly redeployment home of all American combat forces.

I understand this is not easy for you. You are mostly not military or foreign policy experts yourselves. There is no irresistible pressure on you from the peace movement in your district or state at present to end the wars. Many of you have defense industries or military facilities in your districts or states. Many of you fear being targeted by pro-war lobbies, presidents, or challengers. There has, thus far, been little or no political cost for you to say yes to the wars and their gargantuan human and economic costs.

There is no easy solution to the dilemma. It’s far easier to say “end the wars through the power of the purse” than it is to do it. In the final analysis, however, and as in Southeast Asia in the early 1970s, that’s how American participation in these wars will end. Your colleagues then said ‘enough is enough,’ and refused to appropriate further monies. Presidents appear incapable of taking such steps themselves, and for some of the same reasons. 

Will it require uncommon valor to snap the war purse shut? Yes. Will you be vilified by that very small number of us who benefit from the wars? Yes. Will you demonstrate rare independence from a President on questions of war and peace? Yes. Will you, most importantly, be forever esteemed by veterans, parents and families of deployed service personnel, a growing majority of your constituents and other taxpayers? Yes.



STEVE BREYMAN helps educate the future leaders of America’s armed forces at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu


Steve Breyman is a former William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the US State Department.   Steve Breyman teaches energy and environmental policy courses at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He serves as EPA Administrator in the Green Shadow Cabinet.   Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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