We are through the looking glass, Alice. For years now I’ve lambasted the U.S. Congress for shirking it’s constitutionally mandated duty to actually declare and oversee America’s wars. Now, in a cruel joke of sorts, it has finally decided to do so, symbolically voting to condemn the president for pulling troops out of a Syrian war it never sanctioned in the first place. In a rare, bipartisan vote this past week, the House overwhelmingly approved H.J. Res. 77, "Opposing the decision to end certain United States efforts to prevent Turkish military operations against Syrian Kurdish forces in Northeast Syria."
If ever proof was needed that Congress is inextricably linked to the military industrial complex and the forever warfare state, it’d have to be this bill. It demonstrates that the people’s representatives in Washington, normally asleep at the war-making wheel, will only weigh in to continue the nation’s endless wars. Their hypocrisy, it seems, knows no bounds. When a president (Obama, in this case) unilaterally sent American soldiers to combat in a new theater (Syria), Congress looked the other way. The same was true in Yemen, Libya, Iraq 3.0, and across West Africa. However, should a president (Trump) dare try end one of the plethora of endless wars, well that same Congress will assert itself in a New York minute. The lesson: true antiwar activists now know, once and for all, not to look to Capitol Hill for salvation…ever.
Nevertheless, this vote was historic and instructive, worthy of a far more detailed analysis than any mainstream media outlet has dared attempt. First of all, it passed by a landslide, 354-60. Remarkably, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans voted for it, proving that forever war is the only truly bipartisan issue in tribally divided Washington. Furthermore, not a single Democrat opposed the legislation, yet another demonstration of the stark reality that this is about Donald Trump, at its root, and the Dems can’t claim any sort of antiwar bonafides. Even three-quarters of the “squad” of celebrity progressive Democrats – including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – voted to prolong the US military deployment in the Syrian Civil War (Rep. Ilan Omar didn’t vote), a rather abrupt about face from their normally sensible antiwar rhetoric. I suppose even they bowed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the hyper-interventionist mainstream of the Democratic Party that veritably defines itself in opposition to Trump.
In yet another baffling turnabout, all 60 of the representatives that stood by the president’s – admittedly imperfect – attempt to end an unsanctioned and thus illegal war were Republicans. Sure, they were most likely motivated by loyalty to their president, but this still illustrates that the old rules of the game, where Democrats are the, at least vaguely, antiwar party, no longer apply. One thing remains constant, however. Congress, at least since the end of the Second World War, overwhelmingly tends to roll over and support ill-advised presidential war-making, even under false pretenses.
After all, the House voted 414-0 to support President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that essentially green-lighted America’s tragic war in Vietnam. And this week, in a particularly bizarre and ahistoric analogy, Obama’s former National Security Adviser Susan Rice claimed that the decision to pull a handful of troops out of Northeast Syria constituted "Trump’s Saigon." Yes, Susan, and like failed American intervention in South Vietnam, the war in Syria was from the start illegal, unsanctioned, and unwinnable. No matter, no one in the corporate media bothered to critique Rice’s absurd and uninformed assertion. That’s because she’s one of them, a polite, "respectable" Washington war hawk in the most classic sense.
Just as predictably, no one in the mainstream press, and hardly anyone in Congress, questioned the wisdom or practicality of indefinitely securing and protecting a Kurdish mini-state in Northeast Syria, or whether that was really Washington’s motive in the first place. No, crocodile tears for the Kurds was and is nothing more than a convenient tool to maintain perpetual military presence in an Arab state and bash Trump’s foreign policy. Here, too, all sense of historical context was absent. In a exasperated note this week, my former interpreter in Iraq – a holder of two relevant Master’s degrees who now drives a truck in New York City – reminded me that the US has a long history of supporting ethnic and religious minority separatism in the Arab World. As such, Uncle Sam has backed Jewish Israelis, Lebanese Christians, and now the Kurds in order to maintain a military foothold in the Mideast.
So, to truly dig into the motives and stunning cynicism of the US House of Representatives, I thought it prudent to compare the only two recent examples in which it officially – if symbolically – criticized this president’s war policies. Which brings us to Yemen, more specifically H.J. Res. 37 in February of this year, which "Directed the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress." In other words, a bill to end US support for a devastating Saudi terror war that has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and starved at least 85,000 children to death.
Leave aside for the moment the glaring irony that in the latest Syria vote the House called for continuing a war there that was itself, "not authorized by Congress." The two bills provide an instructive comparison precisely because they each dealt with undeclared American wars involving the actual or ostensibly potential genocide against a minority group, the Houthis in Yemen and the Kurds in Syria.
If our representatives’ sincere motive was to halt human rights abuses or a massacre, then one would expect consistency in voting patterns. So too if the motivation was to truly end US involvement in any unsanctioned Mideast wars. Even a cursory look demonstrates, indisputably, that neither was the case. With respect to Yemen, every voting Democrat called for a halt to US support for the Saudi terror war, while all but 18 Republicans stuck with the president and backed continued intervention there.
That time the "squad" stood tall and voted as a bloc to end the war. On the other hand, more than 100 Republicans voted to continue atrocities against the Houthis but protect against potential or predicted genocide against the Kurds by maintaining a US military presence in Syria. The point is that actions speak louder than words, and the actions of most congressmen indicate not just inconsistency, but the paramountcy of partisan politics, even when it comes to matters of life and death.
Finally, let us drill down and look at one highly adulated and illustrative subgroup in the House – post 9/11 combat veterans. There are a paltry 28 such representatives currently serving in that chamber, 20 Republicans and 8 Democrats. After all, Americans love veterans, or so they say, and there’s a prominent myth that more vets in Congress would solve all the problems on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, the voting habits of this small group – particularly on Yemen and Syria – put that fantasy to rest. In reality, these congressional veterans are not only out of step with the American people, but – by overwhelmingly supporting perpetual war – not reflective of the military rank and file, two-thirds of whom believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the military engagement in Syria were "not worth it." It seems even wildly venerated congressional combat veterans are themselves rather partisan creatures.
So here we are, by the numbers: On Yemen, 19 of 20 Republicans voted to continue US support for the genocidal war (one abstained), while all eight Democrats condemned that war, and by extension President Trump. In Syria, on the other hand, 23 of 28 congressional vets backed continued US military presence in the country’s northeast, with only five Republicans sticking with the president on both counts. Democratic presidential contender, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, interestingly, did not vote.
All that esoteric analysis leads to a few rather salient conclusions. First off, combat veterans in Congress aren’t particularly antiwar by any measure. Not a single one (Tulsi came closest) voted against US war-making in both instances, i.e. a Yea vote on the Yemen resolution and a Nay vote on the Syria resolution. And 14 of 20 Republicans, even willing to break with their president on the Syria decision, supported more war in both cases. Those 14, apparently, have sympathy for Kurdish victims but not Yemeni bomb-targets – a macabre reminder that, so far as Uncle Sam is concerned, some foreigners’ lives are worth more than others. So hawkish are these Republican vets that they’ll risk continuing ceaseless war in Syria, despite polling that indicates 56% of their conservative base approves of Trump’s withdrawal.
Most disturbingly, if altogether predictably, the supposedly – and repeatedly self-touted – "apolitical" military veterans in Congress are anything but, and regularly choose party over country through their wildly inconsistent voting habits. Twelve of these folks are even nakedly so, always voting for (five Republicans) or against (7 of 8 Democrats) a person – a polarizing Donald Trump – over policy. Indeed, all the Democratic veterans besides Tulsi Gabbard are apparently only against wars that The Donald supports. Wars this president doesn’t seem to like, well, those ought to rage on and on, even if these congressmen’s former comrades-in-arms will continue to die in hopeless combat in faraway lands.
Maybe consistency is just too much to ask for from 21st century American legislators. Maybe these folks – even the "best and brightest" young combat vets – are already bought and sold by the national security power apparatus, and far too busy "dialing-for-dollars" in campaign contributions to craft dependable and prudent foreign policies for the nation they once served. If all that is true, and I fear it is, than the entire legislative branch of this republic cannot be trusted or relied upon to preserve the lives of the beloved American soldiers these veteran congressmen once commanded.
When I was a young army officer, we used to joke that once a superior was promoted to the rank of major he’d receive a mandatory "field-grade lobotomy," and transform into a sycophantic monster. When it comes to the sacred choice to send American troopers to kill and die in nearly two decade old, unwinnable wars in the Middle East, it seems that even elected combat veterans have long since received their "congressional lobotomies…"
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen