There’s much to hate in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2020, which passed out of conference committee late yesterday evening (story here, summary in .pdf here). I suspect my colleagues will unpack or attack some of the details, but I’m generally annoyed by the top line – $738 billion – at a time when the annual federal budget deficit surpasses $1 trillion. The utter failure of elected officials in both parties to come to grips with our fiscal catastrophe, and align our overly ambitious strategy with our obvious resource constraints is frustrating in the extreme. If this NDAA passes, which seems all but certain, it will be yet another sign of how U.S. foreign policy is writing checks that Americans dare not cash.
But another part of the NDAA is utterly infuriating – the decision by the conferees to strip out two provisions that would have compelled Congress to revisit the 18‐year old Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed after 9/11, and the Iraq war AUMF of 2002, and a separate but related provision stipulating that that authority did not grant the White House carte blanche for initiating a war with Iran, something that senior Trump administration officials have suggested. Both measures were passed in the House version of the NDAA, and with bipartisan support. The Senate, however, especially Senate Republicans, refused to consider such measures.
The oath of office that every member of Congress takes is not so dissimilar to that taken by members of the military: most importantly, they pledge to “support and defend the Constitution.” And that Constitution clearly states that the nation’s war powers are vested in the Legislative branch, not the Executive. In short, members of Congress who have refused to revisit the AUMF are, in effect, engaged in a dereliction of duty. But those who have blocked any consideration of the question, as has just happened, are guilty of a far greater breach of trust: they are actively subverting the Constitution. Shame on them.
This brazen attempt to prevent public oversight of America’s longest war might again pass unnoticed, were it not for the shocking revelations contained in a blockbuster Washington Post report yesterday. The report reveals that U.S. officials have been engaged in a protracted campaign to mislead the American people. Under three successive presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump — who all promised to avoid getting sucked into an open‐ended nation‐building mission, civilian and military leaders, writes the Post’s Craig Whitlock “failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan…, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
Such revelations are not all that surprising, sadly. Drawing on an important Cato study that he co‐wrote with John Mueller earlier this year, John Glaser explains how U.S. leaders, “have rather persistently depicted a rosier picture than the facts warranted,” and he concludes that “this dishonesty, in fact, is a big part of why the war persists.”
There may be a ray of hope on the horizon, however. While at least some of their fellow senators are actively engaged in a campaign to thwart meaningful oversight of this never‐ending war, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal yesterday declared that the Post’s revelations compelled public hearings. They are correct. But, as minority members on the Armed Services Committee, they can’t force such an inquiry. Who among the many GOP senators who have, in the past, spoken eloquently about the need to claw back the war powers will take up the mantle? Who else in the Senate believes that the American people deserve to know the truth about the war in Afghanistan? Who is this generation’s J. William Fulbright?