The Nation / July 16, 2019
Last week, mostly lost amid the deafening din of President Trump’s serial outrages, the House of Representatives finally began asserting common sense and the congressional prerogative over war and peace. By passing a series of amendments to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, it has started to take action against the United States’ increasingly unpopular endless wars.
The House voted 251 to 170, with 27 Republicans joining all but seven Democrats, to prohibit any military strike against Iran without explicit congressional approval. As Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.), the Democratic leader in the effort, put it, the vote was a “clear statement from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that this country is tired of endless wars, that we do not want another war in the Middle East.” A right-left coalition pushed for the measure, including both the conservative Concerned Veterans for America and VoteVets, a liberal political action group. Progressive groups such as Indivisible and MoveOn were joined by right-wing groups such as FreedomWorks, the tea party advocacy group.
The House also voted to end funding for the Saudi-led savaging of Yemen, a conflict that has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. A majority voted to phase out the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force that has been misused by presidents of both parties to justify military attacks on dozens of countries. And the bill also restored the right of transgender people to serve in the military, blocked funding for Trump’s proposed tactical nuclear weapon and prohibited use of the funds to build Trump’s wall.
It wasn’t all victories. Sadly, an amendment offered by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and others to prohibit the use of military force at the border was voted down. While the Republican Senate voted to give Trump the entire $750 billion he requested for the Pentagon, the Democratic House supported a still-bloated authorization of $733 billion (up from $717 billion this year). Neither chamber voted to withdraw troops from Afghanistan or Syria.
But the successful amendments are beginning steps toward reasserting congressional power over questions of war and peace. A conference committee with members from both houses of Congress will now wrestle with reconciling the House bill with that of the Senate that contained none of the restrictions.
A true reckoning with the United States’ failed national security policy is long overdue. While Trump’s impulsive machinations are perilous, so, too, is a bipartisan establishment consensus that remains in place despite its evident bankruptcy. The misadventures in the Middle East and the global financial collapse laid bare the failures of the establishment. Only now do we see the first stirrings of a challenge to that entrenched consensus.
Trump might have campaigned on ending the “stupid wars,” but in office, he has broken that promise. Military operations in Afghanistan continue, as does U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war. Drone attacks in several nations have escalated. The president’s tweet that the troops would come home from Syria was reversed overnight. Now his advisers — particularly the bellicose John Bolton — seem intent on sparking conflict with Iran. Efforts to end this folly have been led by progressives — particularly Khanna and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — and now support on both sides of the aisle has been growing.
That transpartisan revolt will gain new clout with the creation of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, an “action think tank” which will launch this fall with seed donations from the liberal George Soros and the conservative Charles Koch. That unlikely pairing is jarring and has already been attacked by voices left, right and center, but the recent transpartisan progress in criminal-justice reform demonstrates its potential.
A co-founder of the institute is conservative Andrew Bacevich, one of the country’s most compelling conservative realists. With other co-founders including progressive realists Trita Parsi and Stephen Wertheim, it is purposefully reaching across partisan lines. The institute’s mission is to provide a think tank with a focus on ending endless wars, democratizing the formulation of foreign policy and moving U.S. policy toward greater realism and restraint, particularly in the Middle East and East Asia. Its focus gives it the potential to put together broader alliances and new connections with progressives and conservatives. The institute will be a vital complement to the increasingly active citizens lobby against the failed establishment foreign policy consensus, now spearheaded by groups such as Win Without War, Just Foreign Policy and others.
This push will find a receptive public. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that broad majorities of Americans and even veterans do not believe the wars in the Middle East were worth fighting. That applies to Iraq, a country that 64 percent of veterans and 62 percent of all adults oppose fighting in, to Afghanistan (58 percent of veterans and 59 percent of all adults) and Syria (55 percent of veterans and 58 percent of all adults). Scepticism about new conflicts — such as going into Iran — is even deeper.
The 2020 presidential contenders are getting the message. Sanders has made his opposition to the endless wars a centrepiece of his campaign while leading the fight in Congress. In major foreign policy addresses, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have echoed that call, as has former vice president Joe Biden, who, in an otherwise lacklustre speech, pledged to end the “forever wars,” promising to bring home “the vast majority of our troops” from Afghanistan and the Middle East and to end support for the Saudi assault on Yemen. With catastrophic climate change emerging as the greatest threat to our national security, the folly of wasting resources and attention on endless wars will be more and more self-evident.
In the bitterly partisan Washington divide, the effort to curb presidential war-making and to end the wars in the Middle East is one of the few areas where a right-left coalition could jell. Real change won’t happen right away. Reconciliation of the House and Senate bills is yet to begin. Trump continues to threaten a veto if the bill doesn’t give him the money he wants or restricts its use to build his wall. The administration’s escalating pressure on Iran could easily trigger conflict. But the American people have turned against wars without end and without victory. Progressives inside and outside the House are reaching out across party lines to mobilize opposition. That challenge can only grow.
Katrina vanden Heuvel – columnist