Hinting at its own failures of oversight, the Senate Intelligence Committee has voted — behind closed doors — to abolish Members’ eight-year term limits and increase the committee’s staff. Yet the experience of previous Intelligence reforms, including those of the Senate Church Committee in 1975 and the House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee in 1987, shows that procedural fixes are not enough to change Congress’ Cold War tradition of deference to the executive branch.
Congress needs to openly address its lack of political will to perform its constitutional role of checking and balancing presidential power. It could begin by asking, “Did we perform adequately when we decided to authorize force in Iraq, and if not, why not?”
It is remarkable that neither the 17-member, 35-staff Senate Intelligence Committee nor any other Congressional foreign policy committee (or faction thereof) ever prepared an analysis of the 25-page public version of the classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Any careful analysis of this document — widely cited in the Congressional debate — would have revealed an enormous gap between its frightening conclusions and the facts cited to defend them. Judgments that Iraq was “reconstituting” its nuclear weapons program, had “begun resumed production of chemical warfare agents” and had an “active” biological warfare program were weakly justified — or not justified at all — by the actual evidence presented. Furthermore, the judgments were inconsistent with recent administration testimony to Congress.
Congress’ failure to develop an independent perspective on Iraq’s WMD threat was only one element of its acquiescence in presidential policymaking. For example, in the Senate, which was controlled by the Democratic Party opposition:
• Then-Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) did not convene the committee’s first public hearings on the issue until July 31, 2002, despite five previous months of press reports on administration plans for war. Biden himself acknowledged, “It is important to begin to discuss what is being discussed all over, but not here in Congress so far.”
• In early September, then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) took just a few days to overcome his reservations about President Bush’s calendar calling for passage of his Congressional resolution within four to five weeks. Daschle observed, “I don’t think we have much choice but to respect the decision.”
• Senate as well as House party leaders agreed on Sept. 19 to negotiate the president’s proposal in private, largely foreclosing a Congressionally led public discussion before the key votes on war.
On Oct. 10 the president’s bill — only slightly modified in negotiations — passed the Senate 77-23 after five days of mainly desultory debate. Many observers explained the lopsided tally as the Democrats scrambling before elections to immunize themselves from Republican attacks on their patriotism — but there was more to it. A sizeable number of leading Democrats who voted to authorize force believed the United States should first work with the United Nations to pressure Saddam Hussein to disarm and were skeptical of the administration’s commitment to coalition-building. And, concerning the political ramifications, polls indicated that Americans were rather equally divided over going to war. Nevertheless, these key Senators submerged their doubts, rejecting a more conditional resolution backed by nearly half of their Democratic colleagues.
The Senators themselves indicated how far they had moved from the founders’ conception of Congress checking the president. Daschle explained, “I think under these circumstances that it is in spite of our grave concerns that we give the benefit of the doubt to the president.” Biden offered a similar observation: “I just can’t fathom the president acting alone. If I’m wrong about that, I have made a tragic mistake. But that comes down to a little bit of faith. Based on my personal conversations, policy conversations, I have to take a chance.” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had concluded that, just in the last month, “the Bush administration has recognized the wisdom of shifting its approach on Iraq” and “I believe, is now committed to a recognition that war must be the last option to address this threat, not the first, and that we must act in concert with allies around the globe.”
“Faith” in one man — or one man’s intelligence — is not the way Congress is supposed to work in our democracy or has worked generally. In foreign affairs however, “checks and balances” were severely weakened by concern for national survival during the Cold War confrontation with a nuclear superpower.
Whatever one thinks of U.S. intervention in Iraq, there are enough recent examples of unwise executive policies, under both major parties, to confirm our founders’ wisdom: military aid to Afghan rebels that was distributed in favor of Islamic extremists and ultimately contributed to the rise of Al Qaeda terrorism, past assistance to Hussein’s regime, failed nation-building in Somalia, and the unwillingness to squarely confront genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda.
Procedural reforms and post-mortems on administration mistakes are useful, but they cannot alone right the imbalance in our political system. Congress must act to restore its constitutional partnership with the president in foreign policymaking.
Stephen R. Weissman, former staff director of the House International Relations subcommittee on Africa, is associate director for policy of the Campaign Finance Institute. He is the author of “A Culture of Deference: Congress’s Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy.”