The Stepford Congressional Delegations

If you want to see how small our elected officials can be, send them to a meeting with "the boss" – no, not the president. Send them on a CODEL (congressional delegation) to meet with the commanding general in the middle of a war zone.

Back in the day in Iraq, that would have been Gen. David Petraeus, or Gen. Raymond Odierno, though most of time the two were double-teaming it. Today in Afghanistan, the boss is Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Sure, the lawmaker may fly into Bagram air field with a head full of steam against sending 30,000 more troops, or at least a healthy skepticism toward escalating of a war in which every additional day, month, and year of the occupation seems to breathe new life into the forces against us. But like Joanna Eberhart’s fateful discovery at the Stepford Men’s Association, nearly every member of Congress who travels overseas these days to meet the boss returns mouthing the same rhetoric, like a plastic simulacrum of the man or woman their constituents elected.

“What I saw here is almost totally positive,” gushed Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, after a hand-holding walk through a forward operating base in Afghanistan. “We went to places away from Kabul today. We saw real partnering with Afghans … it’s reassuring to see that happening.”

Levin traveled to the region earlier this month with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), spending one day in Pakistan and two whole days in Afghanistan. “Our counterinsurgency strategy may be taking hold … we are offering [the Afghans] terms of security better than the false security offered by the Taliban," he told reporters.

"I came back more optimistic about where we are," Franken shared with Minnesota Public Radio upon his return.

"Gen. McChrystal did say momentum and perception are so important in Afghanistan. I believe we are seeing a change in that," Franken said. "We need to clear, hold, and build, we need to secure these areas … we’re using classic counterinsurgency tactics and I feel much better."

As I wrote about in The American Conservative magazine last month, this all part of the Pentagon’s massive strategic communications (stratcomm) matrix. One may think that stratcomm – which includes everything from Army public affairs to battlefield information operations (IO) and psychological operations (PSYOPS) – is all about shaping perception and influencing "hearts and minds" overseas, but a critical part is keeping elected officials (i.e., the keepers of the coin) on board with the mission.

As such, Gen. McChrystal has learned from the master, Gen. Petraeus, how to gently subjugate members of Congress, tailoring and massaging the desired take-home message for each delegation, ensuring not only that individual members "get it," but that they invoke the correct narrative, tone, and language with their colleagues on Capitol Hill, the media, and with their people back home. In some cases, for example, he makes insiders of key senators, like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman, who fan out smugly like McChrystal’s national surrogates after each CODEL, mouthing all the prescribed verbiage on television, at town hall meetings, and in exchanges with the White House.

Levin and Franken began as skeptics of President Obama’s escalation plan (and they still are, to a point, or so they suggest post-CODEL). Nonetheless, Levin has always insisted that the key to leaving Afghanistan is getting the Afghan security forces trained well enough to defend the government against the Taliban and insidious al-Qaeda elements. McChrystal has seized upon this, no doubt, leaving the senators with the impression today that not only is substantially building the police and national army (the latest goal is from 191,000 to 305,000) by the end of next year doable, but that recruits are now swarming in at a record pace. U.S. and NATO forces just need the additional trainers to keep up with the momentum.

Steve Clemons, always willing to give the Democrats the benefit of the doubt, nevertheless seemed fairly stunned at Levin’s apparent lack of circumspection after his brief "confidence tour" with McChrystal:

"According to Levin, the only shortfall in the area of partnering is not the lack of American combat troops to partner with Afghans in the field, but rather the number of trainers. He said that there are ‘more than enough troops to handle the true shoulder to shoulder partnering.’ He continued, ‘What we learned, to our dismay, is that in the early training, during the first eight weeks, in the preliminary kind of skills given to recruits – there is a significant shortfall in personnel to train.’"

Franken’s take was, not surprisingly, identical. "They got so many recruits they had to cut them off at a certain point because they don’t have enough trainers," Franken told reporters. He was treated to the same "partnering" exhibition as Levin. "The Afghan national army is the most respected institution in the country," he told his public radio host. Considering that a wide swath of the Pashtun people, who make up an estimated 40 to 45 percent of the population, despise the military because they see it as a Tajik appendage of the corrupt Karzai regime, this doesn’t say much for the rest of Afghanistan’s institutions. But someone in uniform must have told Franken that, so it has to be true.

Franken and Levin weren’t the only CODEL in town. A few more had already passed through a week before – and all working off the same page, it seems, with small variations depending on party affiliation and ideological bent.

"The early phases of the counterinsurgency plan – headed by Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus – have resulted in important local security gains," declared Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who was part of a team of GOP gumshoes who made a weekend pilgrimage to Afghanistan and Pakistan mid-month. "This is the same type of ‘clear, hold, and build’ strategy that was successful in turning around our effort in Iraq."

For Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who traveled with a bipartisan delegation the last week of December, McChrystal’s personal assurances were a ratification.

"I’m more optimistic [after the trip] that what we’re doing is making a difference with the surge, which I support,” Stearns said upon returning. Notice how he’s not afraid to call it "a surge."

Another weekend warrior, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), "walked through a bazaar" in "unstable Helmand province" and found it "remarkable" that she felt so safe (she walked through with U.S. Marines, her local paper reported, but really, she insisted, the Afghans were securing the place).

“Just two months before, you were not able to walk freely through the streets,” Murkowski said. “So the combination of the American, the NATO forces, in conjunction with a growing Afghan army presence, is truly making a difference – slowly, but it’s making a difference.”

Not to be outdone, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) shows us the pure effectiveness of a perfectly calibrated dog and pony show.

"I came here with a healthy skepticism about sending more troops to Afghanistan," said Israel. "But after two days here, my comfort level with General McChrystal’s plan has increased immeasurably."

Indeed, there are always a few skeptical liberals on these CODELs, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who seemed, more than any of the others, resistant to McChrystal’s hypno-jive on her recent trip. She gave him high marks for trying, though. “I was impressed by General McChrystal’s command of and confidence in his mission of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism,” she told a reporter who rang her in India. (Like the others, she had been in Afghanistan less than 48 hours. Maybe, unlike the others, she figured that wasn’t long enough to hold forth about it in a planned teleconference with the media.)

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) still harbors uneasiness about the troop hike and says it’s too early to sense if things "are turning around yet," but he clearly came away from his mid-month CODEL undecided about if and when the U.S. should withdraw. "I don’t want to second-guess the president’s plan,” he told reporters. “If we show … Afghan citizens, that we want to stabilize conditions, not militarize, they’ll come around."

As for the top general, McNerney "said McChrystal has a good working knowledge of history, America’s role in the region, and how best to protect Afghan civilians from attacks by the ousted Taliban regime," the Oakland Tribune reported upon the California congressman’s return.

For others more predisposed to Surge II, McChrystal’s immediate stratcomm mission appears twofold: first plant the idea that things are already turning a corner, then give the members enough rhetorical ammunition to return to the States with renewed opposition to the president’s "soft timeline" for troop withdrawal, which has been set for July 2011. McChrystal & Co. clearly do not approve of the deadline and are working (however subtly) to make it a public relations nightmare for the White House – mostly by using their helpers in Congress.

While McCain began the drumbeat early (right after the president’s West Point speech), McChrystal’s challenge now is to ensure, through the Republican CODELs particularly, that the right message, when repeated often enough, prevails.

"It became clear during our trip that the July 2011 withdrawal date announced by President Obama is a major impediment to progress," wrote Sen. Wicker after his trip. "Unfortunately, the Taliban is using the president’s artificial deadline as a propaganda tool. They are spreading the message that the U.S. cannot be depended upon in the long-term, which increases the anxiety many Afghan citizens have about turning against the Taliban."

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who traveled with Wicker and Murkowski on a GOP CODEL, told reporters "there does seem to be a bit of a deficit of trust … both in terms of Pakistani officials as well as Afghanistan officials, they have a concern about whether the United States is going to finish the job, and this is creating concern in both Pakistan and in Afghanistan."

Murkowski also talked about the "trust deficit" with the Afghan people.

"As the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police are trying to build their ranks, if you are a father who wants to encourage a son to go off and be part of a police force, but if you’re not sure this police force is going to continue or have that backing, you might think, ‘we want to go with the side that’s going to win.’

“If the mindset of the people of Afghanistan is ‘we don’t know how long the coalition forces are going to stick it out here, they may be cutting and running. Maybe our best bet is to stay with the Taliban, stay with the bad guys.'”

Quite conversely, Levin and Franken got the impression that Obama’s announcement of the 18-month deadline in early December spurred the current upswing in Afghan police and army recruitment, and that maybe the intensified pressure to perform on a timeline is a good thing.

But it doesn’t matter if the D-CODELs don’t quite see eye-to-eye with the R-CODELs. While it may seem like McChrystal has them talking at cross-purposes, it all essentially plays out in the military’s favor, because these members are returning with the same idea: that more boots on the ground are required and that for the foreseeable future, the U.S. needs to be "clearing, holding, and building" in Afghanistan.

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who has joined a small number of Democrats in vocally opposing the war in Afghanistan, said the conga line of bedazzled members coming off the CODELs ultimately hurts efforts to force a debate on the war in the House. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) plans to introduce a Privileged Resolution to End War in Afghanistan, for which there were 12 bipartisan co-sponsors as of mid-December, including Jones.

"I remember members on CODELs in 2003 and 2004 saying things are getting better…. I remember generals telling them in 2003 and 2004 that training the Afghan security forces was going well," Jones tells "A good salesman can sell you anything – that’s why I think we need a debate."

For his part, Jones – a North Carolina conservative who believes Congress has fallen down on the job – wants a clean break from Stepford and a return to thinking and acting for themselves. "I think the Congress far too often has not met its constitutional responsibility. That’s why I’m working with Dennis Kucinich and others and to say to [House Speaker] Mrs. Pelosi that we need to debate the policy. Just don’t bring it up in the supplemental [funding bill]. That would be shirking our duty."

Perhaps if there were such a debate, our members of Congress wouldn’t seem so darn small.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.