Congress Is Supposed to Restrain U.S. Foreign Policy. It’s Doing the Opposite.

In the upside-down logic of Washington, Congress neglects its constitutional war powers when the president wants to start a military intervention — but if the administration considers removing U.S. troops from conflict abroad, our lawmakers are suddenly eager to weigh in by insisting they stay put.

Take for example H.R.6089, the innocuously named U.S.-Africa Strategic Security Act, introduced by Rep. Jimmy Panetta (Calif.) this month. The bill comes in response to Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s “blank slate review” of U.S. military commitments in Africa, where more than 5,000 American forces are deployed across a network of 27 bases in 15 nations and territories, the majority of them designated “enduring” facilities. These enduring bases come with no sunset provision and are essentially permanent outposts, meaning the Pentagon’s assumption is a long-term occupation.

While AFRICOM is “actively seeking to enhance its presence and is primed for expansion in the future,” per Pentagon documents obtained via FOIA request by The Intercept, Esper is considering a different strategy. He told the House Armed Services he may pursue options “predominantly to reduce presence” of U.S. troops in Africa to focus on other priorities. That’s the shift Panetta’s bill is intended to forestall.

Whether the legislation will succeed remains to be seen; it has yet to get through committee, let alone to a floor vote, and Capitol Hill is preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic. But this is not the first time in recent history Congress has decided to flex its foreign policy muscles to demand the U.S. prolong military interventions indefinitely.

A 2019 House resolution would have prohibited the Trump administration from spending any money to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, had it passed, and the Senate actually approved a similar, albeit merely symbolic, rebuke of President Donald Trump’s reshuffling of forces in Syria. Likewise, the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which became law in the summer of 2018, banned the Pentagon from using any funds to lower the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea below 22,000.

The notion of Congress initiating or, as in the case of these AFRICOM deployments, prolonging war fighting without the executive branch’s support is something of a legal oddity. The framers of the Constitution assigned power to declare war to Congress because they believed the president would be too quick to fight. Turgid congressional debate and decision-making would be an asset in slowing the rush to war, they reasoned, allowing the nation to avoid unnecessary conflicts and deployments which could destroy peace, disrupt trade, interrupt diplomacy, and harm U.S. security.

A perversion of that dynamic — in which Congress functionally cedes war powers to an increasingly overgrown executive branch and reclaims them only when the administration is deemed insufficiently bellicose — is dangerous indeed. It leaves us without even a semblance of institutional restraint or prudence in our approach to matters of war and peace. It risks ensuring the permanence of Washington’s post-9/11 bad habits of perpetual warfare and nation building, counterproductive global military sprawl, and military-first foreign policy which incessantly misuses our military to meddle ineffectively in other nations’ political and cultural affairs.

Congressional reassertion of its constitutional role in foreign policy would be welcome — but only if our lawmakers remember it’s intended to be a safeguard against military adventurism, not a reckless push to extend warfare Congress never duly authorized in the first place.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week whose writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

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