Missing in Action: Congress in Foreign Policy

Ben Mainardi

Image Credit: Tech. Sgt. Eric Miller/DVIDS

In the wake of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban, Washington has been awash with literature on the failure of the American intervention and who is to blame. Amidst the finger pointing and scapegoating, nearly all autopsy efforts have noticeably ignored a key player: Congress.

The post-Afghanistan conversation has largely centered on various departments of the executive branch, almost wholly discounting Congress. This coincides with a decades-long trend of Congress increasingly ceding its role in foreign policy creation and national security affairs

Yet it is just as important to recognize that Congress, spanning two decades of elected officials, has been just as integral to perpetuating national security blunders in the twenty-first century as the executive officials more directly presiding over them. 

In 2001, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Afghanistan passed unanimously in the Senate and faced only one dissenting vote in the House. While the next year’s vote to invade Iraq was less unified, it was still passed with supermajority support in both the Senate (77 percent) and the House (69 percent). 

Moreover, throughout all twenty years of war, Congress passed budget after budget that funded the conflict with little interest into how funds were spent or the return on taxpayer investment. Perhaps most egregious was the Congressional reaction to publication of the “Afghanistan Papers” in 2019. Capitol Hill barely acknowledged the findings at all, and no formal investigation was held.

In a somewhat inflammatory article published earlier this year, entitled “Crisis of Command,” this decaying civilian role in military and national security policy over the past several decades was described in detail. 

The overall reception was decidedly mixed, yet the authors made clear several important realities. What they certainly get right is that Congress and civilian leaders ought to reassert their constitutional roles in national security. The continuing trend of lackluster oversight essentially amounts to a congressional dereliction of duty. 

Where they fall short, however, is in implying that civilians are able and prepared to steer a more prudent national security policy. Playing the counterfactual game of “what ifs” with Congress and the last twenty years of national security policies seems rather futile, especially after considering the various AUMFs (and the glacial pace of repealing old AUMFs) as proof of Congress’ complicity in foreign policy blunders.

Certainly, the argument can be made that comparing the 107th Congress of 2001 to the 117th Congress of 2021 is somewhat disingenuous. The composition of both chambers has indeed changed significantly in the past twenty years. Yet in many ways, it has become even less well-equipped for foreign policy and national security decision making. 

While one might point to all-time highs of educational attainment (all senators and 94 percent of the House have at least a bachelor’s degree), there is increasingly less pre-congressional experience in civil service. Despite public service ostensibly being the most frequently listed pre-election occupation for members of Congress, this is obscured by the fact that most such respondents were former congressional staffers or state legislators

The number of former civil servants from executive agencies, such as the State Department, is astoundingly small. Likewise, there are fewer veterans in Congress today than at virtually any point in the last seventy years – particularly ironic given that the United States has been almost constantly at war for the last two decades. 

Yet perhaps most notable for an institution that primarily relies on accruing experience on the job, there is an observable trend of declining average institutional experience over the past several years.

For example, consider one of the most important legislative committees in guiding American foreign policy. Of the 22 members on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, only two senators have served in the military and just three have professional diplomatic experience. 

While the number of freshmen members remains low on these committees, the result is that experience in relevant committee assignments is correspondingly undercut. This composition is similar for the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, and Select Committee on Intelligence as well as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Of course, members of Congress are not necessarily supposed to be professionals. They cannot all be well-experienced in all areas of policy. What is concerning, however, is the distinct lack of meaningful experience in the practice of national security and foreign policy within the congressional committees most empowered to direct them.

The effects of this trend are unlikely to be resolved on their own and will probably come to be even more pronounced in an increasingly multipolar world characterized by great power competition.

What could be done to arrest this worrisome state of affairs? 

Most basically, members of Congress sitting on pertinent committees, or at the least their senior staffers, could be required to undergo similar advanced professional education as that of senior military, intelligence or foreign service members.

Among others, the National Defense University, National Intelligence University, and Foreign Service Institute play integral roles in educating and training senior military and civilian leadership within the national security community. 

While some staffers have the opportunity to undergo coursework at such federal institutions, the value of these programs is severely underutilized by members of Congress and their staffs. Attempting to get members of Congress to impose restrictions on themselves or their staff is likely an exercise in futility. However, equipping them to better understand the process and implications of national security decision-making is not.

Foreign policy and military blunders are almost inevitable. However, that is not to say that their frequency and scope cannot be reduced. Congress’s primary role in mitigating national security missteps is on the front-end, though policy formulation, and later on, through oversight. 

This second role in particular has become increasingly trivialized through poor management. This is where advanced professional education mandates may best assist. Committees better equipped to fully understand the minutiae and general matters of national security is only a positive step forward. 

Indeed, as renowned military theorist Carl von Clausewitz asserted, war is prosecuted for the attainment of political ends. It is from the political establishment that national security policy emanates. The military is merely the instrument by which state objectives might be achieved. Thus, the burden of guiding prudent national security actions and doctrine chiefly falls on the state. 

In the case of the United States, it is on Congress – who retains both the power to formally declare war and the power of the purse – to guide such long-term policies. America desperately needs its missing branch to return.

Benjamin Mainardi is a postgraduate student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His research is primarily focused on international security, naval affairs, and the Indo-Pacific region.

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