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Congress Needs to Take Responsibility for Afghanistan, Too

Congress Needs to Take Responsibility for Afghanistan, Too

Saturday, 28 August, 2021 - 04:45

The Afghanistan policy story over the last month has primarily been about the US presidency. It should not remain that way.

It’s not hard to tell the story of US involvement in Afghanistan as a tale of failures by at least five presidents. Bill Clinton left a dangerous situation that he did too little to address. George W. Bush intervened and then lost interest, thereby leaving an impossible situation. Barack Obama kicked the can, incurring further costs until he passed along a situation just as bad as the one he inherited. Donald Trump tried to pull the plug, but ultimately did little more than leave a situation that was even less tenable.

And Joe Biden finally resolved to get the US out, but — at best — failed to find a safe way of doing so. (Want to argue that this responsibility goes back further than the 1990s? Be my guest.)

Yet presidents do not have exclusive control over American foreign policy and national security. Congress is a co-equal branch — or at least it can be if it chooses. The president may be the commander-in-chief, but Congress retains control over the purse strings, and can restrict the use of the military — or, for that matter, insist on the use of the military — in many ways.

Yes, members of Congress have made occasional attempts to assert their influence. Some who opposed the war in Afghanistan have long tried to repeal the authorization for use of force there. And we could also count efforts by hawks such as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham to push Trump to continue the war. But for the most part, Congress was just as happy to pass the buck to its successors as the White House was.

I have little hope that will change. But it should. When Congress returns from its recess, both chambers should hold hearings about what went wrong in Afghanistan and what, if anything, should be done now.

Majority-party Democrats should not be afraid of being tough on Biden and his administration. In the long run, they’ll be better off trying to define solutions than by protecting the White House from criticism. Of course, that doesn’t mean Democrats (or, ideally, Republicans) would hesitate to criticize Trump’s policies when appropriate. Or, for that matter, Bush’s.

The problem is that politicians duck responsibility because they have incentives to do so. Several Republicans, for example, are handling the situation in Afghanistan by calling on Biden to resign — a strategy that has multiple advantages. They can appeal to Republican voters who naturally dislike a Democratic president. They can avoid saying anything that might upset one faction or another of their party (or, worse, their always-ready-to-criticize former president). And they don’t need to know anything at all about the policy challenges of the situation.

Historically, some members of Congress have nevertheless tried to influence policy, perhaps because they simply are interested, or perhaps because policy entrepreneurship can pay off in attention and influence. When that happens, the result can be better policy, in part because Congress sometimes knows some things that the White House and the bureaucracy don’t. And sometimes, just forcing the executive branch to withstand serious criticism can sharpen its skills.

The US political system is based on the belief that separated institutions sharing powers, driven by political incentives, will increase the overall ability of the government. Historically, that’s been a good bet.


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