Congress should holf the Executive accountable on foreign policy

By Daniel DePetris

You may not know it from watching cable news, but the United States is currently at war on two continents. Over a span of a decade and a half, Washington has conducted military operations in a total of seven countries, from the deserts of southern Libya to the high-peaked mountains straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Trump administration has accelerated the pace of counterterrorism operations to an even greater extent; in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, U.S. airstrikes against al Qaeda and a small branch of the Islamic State have increased from 21 in 2016 to 131 a year later.

According to The New York Times, the Trump administration is in the process of opening up a new CIA-operated drone base in a corner of northeastern Niger. The construction of the base is in addition to the completion of another drone facility 350 miles away in Agadez, purportedly designed to provide the U.S. Air Force with coverage across the barren Sahel straddling North and West Africa. The U.S. drone program has picked up to such an extent that the American people are often unaware of where and when the U.S. military and counterterrorism communities are using force in their name. At the same time presidents across two administrations have come to rely on the drone program as a counterterrorism tool, the oversight of the program has been a tiny fraction of what it should be.

The lack of accountability, however, is not unique to the drone program. Over the last 17 years, lawmakers in both parties have been reluctant to scrutinize the president’s decisions, particularly when it touches upon the deployment of the U.S. military into combat situations.

The most obvious example of this deference can be seen quite clearly with America’s counterterrorism operations around the world and the blunt reality that much of the American public is clueless as to how much these operations cost; where some of these strikes are located; and whether the drone program is having the desired effect of keeping the U.S. homeland safe from transnational terrorist groups.

If members of Congress do evaluate these questions, they do so largely through confidential briefings behind closed doors, out of the public’s eyesight. Indeed, in some cases, Congress is even kept in the dark; when four U.S. special operators were ambushed and killed in Niger, senior lawmakers admitted they had no idea U.S. troops were operating in that part Africa to begin with. 

This situation is simply unsustainable in a constitutional democracy like the United States, a country whose founding document is prefaced on the principle of separation-of-powers. The architects of the U.S. Constitution were smart to recognize that for a nation to use military force overseas, the government would need to both justify it to the public and gain the collective support of the people through a vote by their elected representatives. Somewhere down the line, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have lost interest in that elemental concept.

Fortunately, it is not too late for Congress to transition itself from an immaterial bystander to a main player on the field. The bipartisan leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the primary oversight committee on U.S. foreign policy, should be commended for attempting to shock Congress out of its slumber by holding public hearings on a variety of issues, from the administration’s use of tariffs to America’s strategic relationships in Europe. But such hearings shouldn’t be celebrated as some noble cause; oversight is, after all, the Foreign Relations Committee’s job.

Congress can—and indeed should—do far more than grill administration witnesses during weekly hearings. The legislative branch must demand a greater influence on how America’s foreign policy is created and implemented. As Will Ruger and Reid Smith wrote in National Review , a congressional role in the nation’s foreign policy and national security debate has the potential to introduce an amount of level-headed and calming restraint that is normally tossed aside in the day-to-day crisis management of the executive branch.

Lawmakers on the appropriations committees must demand extensive and detailed information on the administration’s Special Forces operations throughout the globe and impartial assessments on a drone program that only seems to be widening in scale and intensity. In some circumstances—particularly if the president is unable or unwilling to share such information—it would be completely appropriate for committee chairmen and ranking members to leverage their power of the purse to insist upon the answers. Provisions should be written into spending or authorization bills that mandates the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon to submit expenditure reports on where in the budget the American people’s tax dollars are being spent and whether the funds are being spent wisely. And Congress should task independent, impartial watchdogs like the Government Accountability Office to perform comprehensive analyses on foreign policy programs in order to ensure that executive branch departments are held to a high standard. To do anything less would be for Congress to shortchange the American people it is duty-bound to represent.      

A lack of accountability is a disturbing staple in Washington, D.C.  But it is also more than that; if not checked, unaccountability produces policies that can be strategically disastrous for the country.  Constituents want and indeed expect their elected officials to take the hard votes.  This is, after all, why many of them were sent to Washington the first place: to do what is right for the districts and states they represent and above all what is in the national and economic interests of the country at large.

An uninformed public leads to erratic and uninformed policies. Congress possesses the authority to rebalance a scale between the executive and legislative branches that has tilted heavily in favor of the executive for decades. For the health and vibrancy of the American republic, lawmakers better start using it.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on September 14, 2018. Read more HERE