Hold the Foreign Policy elites accountable

By Daniel DePetris

Professor Andrew J.  Bacevich of Boston University is perhaps the most well-known and persistent advocate in the academic community for a more restrained, less aggressive, and less knee-jerk foreign policy. He has written columns, books, op-ed’s and has given lectures on the danger of U.S. overreach for decades, and one can reasonably be certain that Bacevich’s personal experience as a combat veteran during the Vietnam and Gulf Wars helped shaped the way he viewed the world and America’s place in it.  Bacevich fiercely challenges many of Washington’s foreign policy scholars, but even his detractors recognize he is a principled man whose message about careful, deliberative, results-based U.S. foreign policy is an important component of the wider debate.

Bacevich’s latest op-ed in the Los Angeles Times is in keeping with that tradition.  Writing that foreign policy officials very rarely are held accountable for decisions that later turn out to be unwise and damaging to the U.S. national interest, he goes on to implore the next generation of American leaders to break the mold by engaging in independent thinking and actual debate before critical decisions are made. Today’s policy elite, an exclusive club that has come to dominate the foreign policy machinery over the past two decades, needs a kick in the rear.

This is an argument that is particularly suitable during this election season, when anti-establishment, anti-elite, and anti-government sentiment is strongly embedded among the American voter.  According to the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of Americans don’t have trust in their elected officials, regardless of which ideology or political party these officials happen to subscribe. The U.S. Congress hasn’t cracked 25 percent approval rate since 2009

As the numbers indicate, the U.S. Congress has plenty of work to do in order to regain the trust of the American people on foreign policy. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans included, have largely overlooked the current war against the Islamic State with the exception of the usual hearings — an oversight process that is generally used by members for political purposes rather than serious discussion about strategy.  Americans have been at war for 15 consecutive years, and yet the people’s elected representatives go about their jobs as if war is a normal part of today’s discourse.

This is not what our founders intended. All too often, substantive debate is truncated for time constraints or because it’s politically inconvenient. The congressional debate on Iraq was a searing experience for many lawmakers who voted to forcefully remove Saddam Hussein’s regime.  Some members who voted to provide President Bush with the authority would later be defeated four years later once the conflict went badly.  Others won re-election, but came to the conclusion that future war authorization votes should be avoided at all costs lest they get booted out of a job. 

Today, Congress has traveled a full 180-degrees; whereas a vote for war in the past was usually quick and painless, it is now a debate that is politically dangerous and should be avoided entirely. U.S. pilots, advisers, and special operations troops are already fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, these lawmakers may ask, so what is there to gain politically by formally providing the president with power that the White House is already exercising?  Therein lies the main problem: war and peace should never be viewed through a political sense, but from the standpoint of what best serves U.S. national security and America’s interests around the world.

A full, open, and honest discussion in front of the American public about the benefits and costs of U.S. military force, the dangers associated with it, and how much U.S. taxpayer money will be needed to prosecute it are immensely important questions that a lawmaker acquires as soon as he or she is elected by their constituents.  These same questions, though, are rarely given the weight from Congress that they deserve. Instead, Congress seems to defer all of the power to the executive branch, assuming that the president’s national security team knows what a smart war strategy looks like.

Just as Bacevich worries about the indifference of the American public during a period when war is a constant fact of life, we should worry just as much about the distressing record of our elected officials when the most important question that a lawmaker can ever debate arrives on their desks: should Congress allow the president to send American service members into harms way.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Business Insider on November 9, 2016. Read more HERE