In recent months and years, it seems that Congress has been taking an increasingly active role in setting US national security policy. Legislators are no longer satisfied with simple pronouncements on their foreign policy preferences, even in the form of House or Senate resolutions that indicate broad support for their position. Instead, Congress has been affirmatively exerting its power through all of the tools available to it, from requiring reports from the Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense to imposing (vice authorizing) sanctions.
This turn of events would be important even if it did not directly affect the national security of the United States. After all, it reflects a shifting balance of power between the branches of the federal government which seems to be largely unnoticed in the general press. Under the status quo ante, the Congress’s role has been to endow the President with certain policy tools and to review his use of those tools. If it is uncomfortable with his policy, it generally just complains bitterly. On extreme occasions, it will remove or place restrictions on some of those policy tools.
The current Congress’s actions go much further. The best example is the sanctions regime it has placed on Iran. Congress did not merely authorize President Obama to impose sanctions on Iran, its leaders, or those others who may interfere with the sanctions regime–instead it required him to do so. This, of course, limits his flexibility in coming to a negotiated settlement (see my previous post), which is exactly what is intended.
The 112th Congress is not one which is particularly interested in negotiated solutions in any case, but with regard to Iran, many legislators see negotiation as a dangerous distraction from the path to war. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) described the Obama policy as a “foolish embrace of yet another round of negotiations [that] will only embolden the regime.” While language has been added to the forthcoming Iran sanctions bill which makes clear that the act would not authorize the use of military force, this provision was itself a contested issue that had to be watered down in the Senate.
But perhaps the most worrying aspect of this sequence of events is not that Congress is taking the lead, nor that it is hell-bent on using military force, but instead that it is intent on doing so without taking into account the effects on the political and economic situation. Indeed, in the absence of a ground invasion, there is little hope that the nuclear program could be destroyed by military force since it is both hardened and dispersed. Additionally, any attack that did not completely wipe out the program would likely cause Iranians to “rally to the flag”–in this case the nuclear flag–a completely counterproductive outcome. Lastly, not only would any direct attack on Iran would throw the oil markets in particular into wild chaos, but invading Iran at this point, so shortly after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (but not North Korea), would force much of the world’s population to conclude that we are at war with Islam. And you can be sure that the Islamic world will not take that lying down. Until these issues are addressed, precipitous use of military force would be most unwise. Thankfully a few Republicans, such as Chuck Hagel, are making their concerns about these issues known and are calling for cooler heads to prevail.
The general failure to take such considerations into account displays a lack of strategic thinking. In setting policy, especially in cases dealing with nuclear proliferation among our enemies and the decision to resort to military action, where the national security is so directly impacted, decision-makers (whoever they are) must take into account not only the odds of success or failure of the policy objective at hand but also the secondary and tertiary effects, as well as the relative likelihood of each possible outcome. Not doing so risks creating more problems than are solved–and that appears to be the road we are now being steered down.