Earlier this week, over 50 veterans of America’s seemingly endless wars fanned out across Capitol Hill to make the case for ending these wars. The organizers of the initiative, VoteVets and Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), have been on opposite sides on many issues. But, as the New York Times reported earlier this year, they’ve come together to call on members of Congress to take responsibility, and revisit the nearly 18-year-old Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed immediately after 9/11.
CVA’s Dan Caldwell explains in a new video that the groups’ members share “a common bond through military service.” Both groups would now like to see Congress “use the powers given to it in the Constitution to help America pursue a more restrained foreign policy.”
VoteVets’ chairman Jon Soltz agrees. “If there’s a national security threat, and its debated in Congress, there’s reasons for military action. But we’ve exhausted those reasons in many places that we’re currently fighting in the world.”
“It’s our job as activists,” he continues, “to identify where Congress is negligent and begin to establish paths forward, and create political repercussions for people that don’t want to do their job.”
Some members of Congress aren’t shirking their responsibilities. At a luncheon on Wednesday hosted by CVA, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) pointed to the bill that he has co-sponsored with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), that calls for the removal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the formal repeal of the post-9/11 AUMF. He was followed at the lectern by three members of Congress who agreed that the wars had gone on too long, and with too little oversight. Rep. Max Rose (D-NY), a former Army Ranger and decorated combat veteran, bemoaned the country’s addiction to undeclared war. Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH), another former Ranger, pointed to the nation’s soaring deficit, and questioned the lack of accountability. And Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) pushed back on the “war lobby’s” seemingly endless appetite for still more foreign conflicts. Other speakers included retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who has worked with VoteVets since 2006, the Charles Koch Foundation’s William Ruger, a U.S. Navy reservist and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and Rachel Bovard of Defense Priorities.
When I spoke to Caldwell by phone after the event, he explained that, in the past, CVA had mostly focused on reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse within the Department to Defense. But, they realized “you can’t have an honest conversation about both departments without talking about our foreign policy.”
Because foreign policy ultimately drives military spending, and because CVA has always stressed that the national debt is America’s greatest long-term threat, he and others within the organizations decided to focus additional attention on the assumptions driving U.S. foreign policy, and to question the logic of America’s endless wars.
Members and their staffs were surprised to see VoteVets and CVA working together. Many were receptive to the message, but others worry that repealing the 2001 AUMF, or replacing it with something more limited, would tie the hands of the military and intelligence agencies, and increase our exposure to future terrorist incidents.
But research shows that military intervention is a poor tool for fighting terrorism – indeed, the presence of large numbers of foreign troops, or anger and resentment at destruction raining down from the sky, may create more terrorists than it kills. It is long past time to take a step back, and explore other approaches. More to the point, the fear of terrorism should no longer serve as the central organizing principle of America’s foreign policy, given that the actual danger it poses to Americans is modest and manageable.
And, as Gene Healy and John Glaser pointed out last year, AUMF repeal “wouldn’t leave the executive branch legally hamstrung” should circumstances change. “The president would still retain independent constitutional power to ‘repel sudden attacks’ in case of an imminent threat” and if President Trump decides that a particular organization “represents a serious, long-term danger to our national security, he is free to make that case to the people’s representatives and secure authorization for war.”
Caldwell suspects that Congress’s reluctance is driven more by politics than by objective concerns for the nation’s security. “Most members don’t want to take political risks around tough foreign policy issues,” he told me. But he believes that “VoteVets and CVA can provide cover for members on both sides, particularly on repeal of the 2001 AUMF, which will ultimately lead to a more restrained foreign policy.”
And he assured me that this was just the beginning. “This partnership is not just a flash in the pan.”
That seems clear. At the tail end of their joint video, Soltz poses a direct question to us all – but especially to VoteVets and CVA members, and to the members of Congress who actually have the power to implement real change: “Everybody here knows what’s right or wrong. Everybody here knows they want to end the war. The only question is, ‘Do you have the courage to do it?’”