Unanimous Conformity in the Senate
For the warfare state, it doesn't get any better than 99 to 0.
Every living senator voted Wednesday to approve Gen. David Petraeus as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Call it the unanimity of lemmings -- except the senators and their families aren't the ones who'll keep plunging into the sea.
No, the killing and suffering and dying will be left to others: American soldiers who, for the most part, had scant economic opportunities in civilian life. And Afghans trapped between terrible poverty and escalating violence.
The senatorial conformity, of course, won't lack for rationales. It rarely does.
An easy default position is that the president has the right to select his top military officers. (Then why is Senate confirmation required?) Or: This is a pivotal time for the war in Afghanistan. (All the more reason for senators to take responsibility instead of serving as a rubber stamp for the White House.)
In today's Senate, the conformity is so thick that it's almost enough to make you nostalgic for the Senate of four and a half decades ago. At least there were a couple of clear dissenters from the outset -- first and foremost, Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, who in August 1964 voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that "authorized" the horrors of the U.S. war on Vietnam.
Within a couple of years, appreciable dissent was coming from William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as Frank Church and George McGovern. Then Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and other senators.
The process of getting off the war train was pitifully slow, in view of the wholesale deadly ferocity of the Vietnam War -- and in view of the fact that Congress, like the U.S. news media, lagged so far behind the clarity of opposition emerging from many millions of Americans. Whatever good happened on Capitol Hill was a direct result of the anti-war movement and more generalized public sentiment against continuing the war.
In the Senate of 2010, the baseline of conscience and courage is at an abysmally low level.
When the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, said he's "deeply concerned" about the course of the Afghan war, his tactical objections dodged the fundamentals of the escalating conflagration. And so, Levin dutifully declared that Petraeus will "bring highly experienced leadership and a profound understanding of the president's strategy in Afghanistan."
Chiming in was Sen. John McCain, who lauded the general as "one of the finest military leaders our country has ever produced." McCain has long been appreciative of Petraeus' record, including his services as a military spinmeister for President George W. Bush's Iraq war policies midway through the decade.
In 2007, a notable ad from MoveOn.org described Petraeus as "a military man constantly at war with the facts." There's no reason to believe that Petraeus is more candid these days. At any rate, the policy from the White House is what really matters, not the proclivities of any particular general.
Like mice who won't try to bell the chief-executive cat, senators complain but keep on purring. That explains their unanimous vote for a general pledging to stay the course in Afghanistan.
Every few months, I take another look at footage of Sen. Morse, directly challenging the war president, a man of his own party. It's inspiring -- yet painful to watch, because of the sharp contrast with today's mealy-mouthed senators.
A growing number of House members are lining up against the Afghanistan war, although they're far short of a majority. Meanwhile, the Senate is a bastion of bluster. The overarching congressional problem is a pattern of doing what the war machinery requires -- most importantly, voting to pay for the war. Until that stops, the war won't.