Readings — From the June 2013 issue
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When it comes to foreign policy, today’s Americans are often a romantic and rather eager lot. Our country’s constantly changing, multicultural demographics and relatively short history tend to free our strategic thinkers from the entangled sense of the distant past that haunts Germany, France, and Russia in Europe, or China, Korea, Japan, and Russia in East Asia. When our security is threatened we often take a snapshot view of how to respond, based on the data of the moment rather than the historical forces that our actions might unleash down the road. This reliance on data-based solutions and short-term victories was Robert McNamara’s great weakness as he designed our military policy in Vietnam during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. It was also Donald Rumsfeld’s strategic flaw as the Bush Administration planned and executed the “cakewalk” that soon became a predictable quagmire following the invasion of Iraq.
The need for historical perspective may seem obvious to people who devote their professional lives to foreign affairs, but many American political leaders tend to lose sight of it once the cameras roll and the microphones are thrust in their faces, putting them mere minutes away from a YouTube blast that might ruin a career. As former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill famously put it decades ago, most politics is local. Most politicians learn about the essentials of foreign policy only after they have been elected, if at all. This explains the near total absence of any real foreign-policy debate in our electoral process, whether at the congressional or the presidential level.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the national discussions that have followed in the wake of 9/11. Despite more than ten years of sustained combat operations, and despite frequent congressional trips to such places as Iraq and Afghanistan (usually highly structured visits lasting only a few hours, or at the most a day or two), Congress has become largely irrelevant to the shaping and execution of our foreign policy. Detailed PowerPoint briefings might be given to legislators by colonels and generals in the “battle zones.” Adversarial confrontations might mark certain congressional hearings. Reports might be demanded. Passionate speeches might be made on the floors of the House and the Senate. But on the issues of when and where to use force and for how long, and what our country’s long-term postwar relations should be, Congress is frequently ignored.
This is not an accusation or a condemnation; it is an observation. Consider a few recent examples. In December 2008, after more than a year of largely secret negotiations with the Iraqi government, the outgoing Bush Administration signed an ambitious, far-reaching plan called the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA). Not to be confused with the mundanely technical Status of Forces Agreement, a common document that with minor variations governs jurisdiction over U.S. forces serving in nearly ninety countries around the world, the SFA addressed a broad range of issues regarding the future relationship between Iraq and the United States. This was not quite a treaty, which would have required debate on the Senate floor and the approval of sixty-seven senators, but neither was it a typical executive-branch negotiation designed to implement current policy and law. Included in the SFA, as summarized in 2008 by the Council on Foreign Relations, were provisions outlining “the U.S. role in defending Iraq from internal and external threats; U.S. support of political reconciliation; and U.S. efforts to confront terrorist groups,” as well as measures “shaping future cooperation on cultural, energy, economic, environmental, and other issues of mutual interest.”
Despite the deep divisions that remained in the American body politic regarding our future role in the Middle East, Congress was not consulted in any meaningful way as the SFA was negotiated. The draft agreement was kept from public and media scrutiny, to minimize any debate that might have put it in jeopardy. Once the document was finalized, Congress was not given any opportunity to debate its merits, nor did the congressional leadership even ask to do so. When I asked to read the full document in the weeks before it was signed, I was required to consult it in a soundproof room normally reserved for reviewing classified materials, even though the proposed agreement was not itself classified. And according to the logbook I signed before being allowed to read the agreement, I was the only member of the Senate who had actually read it at that point. Congress did not debate or vote on this agreement, which set U.S. policy toward an unstable regime in an unstable region of the world. By contrast, the Iraqi parliament voted on it twice.
A few years later the executive branch, headed by a new president, followed a similar pattern with respect to Afghanistan. In May 2012, after a year and a half of negotiations, President Obama signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, characterized by the White House as “a legally binding executive agreement, undertaken between two sovereign nations.” Its purpose was to define the future relationship between the United States and Afghanistan, including American commitments to that country’s security and development, as well as an American military presence that was expected to continue after 2014. Afghanistan was designated a “Major Non-NATO Ally” in order to “provide a long-term framework for security and defense cooperation.”
Unless Americans accept that we have devolved into a political system where the president has become a de facto prime minister, it is difficult to understand why Congress has remained so complacent when the executive branch has made its own agreements affecting long-term security and economic issues. Congress did not participate in the development of the strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, nor did congressional leaders from either chamber or either political party even ask for a debate, much less a vote. As with the SFA in Iraq, the Afghan parliament voted on this agreement, while our Congress was not even formally consulted.