Help from the Hill?
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As a rule, both the joint Chiefs of Staff and the Central Intelligence Agency's leadership prefer that Congress stay out of their affairs. Indeed, an ideal Congress for many denizens of this realm would be one that simply holds open the cash spigots while Langley and the Pentagon set their own agendas. That makes it particularly alarming to see that as the Bush administration lays its plans for Iraq, career military and intelligence officers are increasingly -- and desperately -- looking to Congress to help stave off what they fear will be a disaster.
A number of military and intelligence hands worry that the administration's proactive strategy against Iraq will prove fatally shortsighted. Not only is Congress the body with the constitutional mandate to declare war, say advocates of congressional intervention, but the complexity and volatility of the region fully warrants a serious debate in the Capitol. "Congress ought to be having a wide-ranging policy debate," says one veteran CIA official, "because pretty soon, if [President George W.] Bush takes the preemptive route, this will happen without any debate whatsoever, and all the debate will be post-action -- including debates over events that have potential for disaster in both the short and long term."
What has some senior military officials particularly concerned is that the Bush presidency appears willing to play fast and loose with the concept of grand strategy, or the overarching principles that guide how and where to engage other nations, whether militarily or diplomatically. For instance, John Boyd, the late Air Force colonel and founder of the military-reform movement, held that a key component of grand strategy was to "influence the uncommitted or potential adversaries so that they are drawn toward our philosophy and are empathetic toward our success."
In order to achieve this, Boyd believed that the United States had to contend with "the underlying self-interests, critical differences of opinion, internal contradictions, frictions, [and] obsessions" that would likely drive the actions and perceptions of both hostile and neutral states. Bush's war hawks have willfully ignored such considerations -- not just with adversaries and the uncommitted, but with allies. And as far as the grand idea worth fighting for, one of Boyd's colleagues, retired Air Force Reserve Col. Chet Richards, has argued that the U.S. Constitution will do nicely -- but going to war without meaningful congressional deliberation certainly seems to undermine that vision.
A congressional debate, presumably, would air the questions of unilateralism, relations with neighboring countries and the long-term ramifications of American belligerence in Arab lands. These are the same concerns that currently bedevil some in the military and intelligence communities, who see the administration's emerging plans as disturbingly divorced from reality. They are troubled by the notion of Iraq as an example of the dubious new Bush doctrine of "preemption." One article that has been making the rounds among career military officials -- and that should be fodder for a wider public debate -- argues that preemption may be something worse than a bad idea.
"Is Preemption a Nuclear Schlieffen Plan?" asks a veteran defense analyst, who writes under the nom de plume "Dr. Werther" for the Defense and the National Interest Web site, which is widely read in defense circles. The article takes aim at the "vainglory, worship of force, and threat-mongering" that has characterized U.S. foreign policy rhetoric in the wake of the Cold War and which has been "pumped to epidemic levels" since September 11. Likening the "preemptive strike" policy toward Iraq to "Germany's neurotic obsession with hostile encirclement" by France in the early 20th century, Werther notes that Kaiser Wilhelm II did away with the careful foreign policy of Bismarck's era, taking instead as Germany's central military tenet the dubious idea that France would have no hesitation about violating Belgian neutrality. In the event of war, Germany would then implement the general staff chief Alfred von Schlieffen's plan, which meant first taking over Belgium and immediately knocking out the French.
Alas, it didn't quite work out that way. In fact, the Schlieffen plan "guaranteed that Germany would create enemies faster than it could kill them." (Unhappy with the Belgian invasion, in came the British, along with the French, who weren't knocked out after all.) And this, despite the fact that Germany "then possessed the most efficient, if not the largest, killing machine in the world."
What went wrong, Werther continues, is the same thing that could happen to today's United States: "The narrow tactical object of preemption crowded out the grand strategic factors that would eventually spell big trouble for the nations whose militaries they served. One senses the same pedantic, inwardly focused orientation in the press accounts of the administration's purported plan to attack Iraq. The plan appears totally focused on the number of U.S. troops and aircraft that are logistically possible to bring to bear ... notably lacking is any assurance that contiguous countries will even support the action ... . Nor is much thought given to the political ramifications for NATO ally Turkey, whose collapsing government hardly needs a reinvigorated Kurdish independence movement on its southern border."
And while the newspapers chew over the various "options" before President Bush, no shortage of active duty and retired officers are shooting every one of them down. In the last week of July, one retired Marine officer sent around an e-mail titled "Why invasion of Iraq is both dumb and undoable." Noting that the military's strategic lift capability and manpower aren't sufficient to the task, he maintains that "short of nuking Baghdad ... there is no credible decapitation option available." What's more, he observes, "We don't have the intelligence or counterintelligence or covert action capabilities we need to a) find Saddam Hussein; b) avoid catastrophic counter-strikes at home; and c) restore our credibility with the Iraq dissidents in the field." Most egregious, the officer marvels, is Bush's decision to announce in advance "a plan to take out a rogue nation armed with [chemical, nuclear, and biological] capabilities that have been used to kill tens of thousands of both Iranians and Kurds." The administration must be very confident in its capacities -- and for that, the writer marvels, it must have chosen "to believe the ideologically pure [defense adviser Richard] Perle instead of the pragmatically grounded generals and admirals who are discreetly trying to tell him the truth of the matter."
In light of all this, what's desperately needed, says one veteran CIA official, is a Democratic opposition intent on bringing the Iraq plans before Congress: "The Democrats have been afraid not just of making the case for not attacking Iraq, but of simply talking about it -- which is just about as insane and irresponsible as some of what the Bush people are proposing," the former official insists. "They have to get over their fear of 'taking on a wartime president.' We are talking about serious stuff here that must be debated: In the service of getting rid of someone we've effectively bottled up, is it really worth the casualties? Is it worth the alienation and antagonism it will beget in the region and elsewhere? Can the administration actually make a case? But beyond that, there's the larger issue: Is Congress going to cede its constitutional responsibility to the president?"
Not that Congress has never done such a thing before. Andy Jacobs, a retired Democratic representative from Indiana and the author of The 1600 Killers: A Wake-Up Call for Congress , charges that virtually every president and every Congress since Harry S. Truman has subverted the constitutional provisions on war making. As Jacobs recounts, there's a reason the framers put the power to declare war into the hands of the people's representatives: "Who is more likely to know the moms and dads of the kids who are sent to the slaughter of war -- a president surrounded and cloistered by courtiers, or members of Congress who know those parents and kids by name and mingle with them in stores, unencumbered by unsmiling guys in black suits, wearing hearing aids and dark glasses?" Jacobs asks.
Here's another reason Congress needs to deliberate, and soon: The Bush crew may get around the Iraq debate by attacking Iran first. According to multiple national security sources, plans for a "preemptive" strike against Iran's nearly completed nuclear reactor at Bushehr have already been developed. According to one source familiar with the plan, the logic behind it calls for debate, too. "The hawks believe that because the Iranians have given Hizbollah small arms, they're going to give them radioactive waste to make dirty bombs. I'm sorry, but state sponsors of terrorism are very reluctant to give up control of that stuff to surrogates," he says.
The administration needs to hear these concerns. And with stakes this high, Congress needs to make the final call.