Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Does Congress have anything to say about a war that goes on, and on, and on?

COMMENTARY | June 18, 2009

Obama is doing some high-stakes international gambling with either war or alarming aituations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. It’s time Congress, with its Constitutional authority and obligations, got into the action, writes George C. Wilson.

By George C. Wilson

Is this Global War on Terror going to last forever? Has it already changed our nation from an historically defen­sive Athens to an offensive Sparta whose military looks everywhere for trouble and finds it? Who is calculating the cost-to-benefit ratio of sending Green Berets and other Special Operations troopers into remote corners of the world to assassinate suspected terrorists?

Ever since the Vietnam War, our presidents have ush­ered members of Congress into the grandstand where they can boo or cheer military decisions but not make them, despite what the Constitution says right there in Article 1, Section 8: “The Congress shall have power to provide for the common defense.”

While the lawmakers sit in the grandstand and watch his game plan unfold, President Obama is betting on Iraq pacifying itself rather than fighting a civil war; on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new field commander for Afghanistan, and State Department specialists winning Afghan hearts and minds while our troopers and bomb­ers neutralize the Taliban; on Pakistan’s shaky govern­ment keeping its nukes out of terrorists’ hands, and on Russia, China, North Korea and Iran not stirring up the kind of trouble our overextended military would have to deal with. Can any politician, any president, be lucky enough to win all those bets? I doubt it.

Even if Obama should be lucky enough to win all those bets, how much is it going to cost the taxpayers to finance the ongoing wars? Replace the military gear worn out in Iraq? Keep buying those overpriced super weapons the admirals and generals insist they need to fight Russia or China or both? Care for those hundreds of thousands of mentally and physically wounded troopers who fought in this open-ended Global War on Terror?

The short answer is to print more money. Besides add­ing to the giant deficit, such a step would fuel inflation and perhaps prompt China and other creditor nations to demand that the United States redeem the IOUs they are holding.

Unlike Congress, William Greider, a brilliant writer and analyst, has looked these and other dangers in the eye and told us what he sees around the corner in his new book, “Come Home, America.”

He dares to write in the book that America has indeed transformed itself from Athens to Sparta to the point that our unchecked militarism endangers us all. What follows is an excerpt from his chapter entitled “The Next War:”

“The U. S. military, despite its massive firepower and technologi­cal brilliance, has itself become the gravest threat to our peace and se­curity. Our risks and vulnerabilities around the world are magnified and multiplied because the American military has shifted from providing national defense to taking the offensive worldwide, from being a vigilant defender to being an adventurous ag­gressor in search of enemies.

“The predicament this muscle-bound approach puts our country in is dangerous and new,” Greider warns. “Go looking for trouble around the world and you are likely to find it. The next war may be a fight that is provoked not by them but by us. The next war may al­ready have started somewhere in the world, perhaps in a small, obscure country that we’ve never considered threatening.”

I agree with Greider that there is a new attack elephant in the American living room. The old watchdog that would bark if some stranger knocked at the door but only bite if he broke into the house has been retired. Obama and Defense Secretary Gates seem to have fallen in love with Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and Marine special operators who do their deadly work in the shadows.

The top of our government was similarly infatuated with special operations during the Vietnam War until some of the operators got out of control and had to be reined in to discourage what was called “cowboyism” back then.

Senators and representatives have put their hands on only part of this new strategy. For example, Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain asked McChrystal at his confirmation hearing this important question: “How long do you expect the counter-insur­gency effort in Afghanistan to last?”

McChrystal replied: “Sir, I can’t put a hard date on it. I believe that counter-insurgency takes time. I believe that we need to start making progress within about the next 18 to 24 months.” That’s a far cry from World War II’s bracing “Berlin by Christmas” or “unconditional surren­der.” Progress will be in the eye of the beholder, as it was during the Vietnam War.

What Congress owes its stockholders, the American people, it seems to me are detailed, annual reports on this Global War on Terror. How inclusive is it? What cost-to-benefit ratios are being applied to proposed op­erations? Who in Congress would oversee them? Are we creating more problems for ourselves than we’re solv­ing? Who is killing whom in the dark and why? Are we in a war without end?

Congress leaped into former President George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror before it really looked. But as a nation we have not yet reached the point of no re­turn. There is still time for Congress to get out of the grandstand and dig into this seemingly open-ended war and tell the American people, in public hearings and through com­missioned studies, where we are going, why and how much this trip into the unknown is going to cost.

This column first appeared in National Journal’s CongressDailyAM.

toggled headline in today's Times
Posted by Carey R. Carlson
07/22/2009, 12:23 PM

You've said it well, and given voice to my shame in being a U.S. citizen today. I noticed something unusual in the (online) NYTimes today. One main page headline reads: Clinton Warns N. Korea and Myanamar May Be Sharing Nuclear Technology. But when you open the article, the headline now reads: Clinton Hints at 'Defense Umbrella' to Deter Iran. It's unusual, though I don't know how rare, for a Times headline to mismatch that way. In this case, the mainpage headline is rather "tame" and basically unrelated to its alternate headline. The "hinting" at 'Defense Umbrella' is about expanding war-on-terror policy, which is anything but tame. It's up there with the "defense shield" in Europe that courts war with Putin. Plus, the word "hinting" is disingenuous-- Hillary outright said it, as the article goes on to inform us. What's going on here? Maybe nothing, but I'd say the Times is trying to soften the reader's anxiety about Hillary's speech-- a speech which reveals the administration's agenda to expand our military footprint around the globe.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.