If the U.S. body politic were susceptible to teachable moments, this would seem to be a prime one.
Russia starts bombing Syria and the American establishment howls in outrage: Lt. Gen. Robert P. Otto, U.S. Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, declares, "If at the end of the day you inadvertently kill innocent men, women and children, then there’s a backlash from that. And so we might kill three, and create 10 terrorists." Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, warns Russia that civilian casualties "will only fuel more extremism and radicalization." And the hot air had not even had time to cool from this national display of righteousness about the failings of our old Cold War foe, before the U.S. proceeded to bomb a hospital in Afghanistan. We know that the military is not going to point out the obvious—they follow orders. And we know the Administration is not going to either—they’ve invested seven years in the Afghanistan War. But where is Congress when we need them?
As Otto and Power have so appropriately, if inadvertently, pointed out, current American foreign policy fails the first test of what a defense policy is supposed to do, which is to make the nation safer. At the time that Osama bin-Laden stated his goal of tying the United States down in a war with Islam along “a large scale front which it cannot control,” it seemed like a sick fantasy. Fourteen years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, however, our leaders have taken the terrorist bait with such regularity, to the tune of two full-out invasions, bombing campaigns in five additional Muslim nations, and military operations in a total of 135 countries last year, that they now find themselves in the position of openly considering arming an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria because of the rise of another group, ISIS, that hates us even more. Is anyone in Congress even paying attention? Or are they simply afraid to speak the truth about our own disastrous course?
Certainly the rest of the world isn’t buying it anyhow. Last year’s Pew Research Center’s survey of global attitudes and trends found our drone bombing campaign enjoying majority support in but four out of forty nations—and one of those four was the United States. In thirty-three of those countries, the opposition ran to two-thirds or higher. Scorned around the globe, successful only in ever extending the reach of our conflict, our foreign policy is, in short, delusional.
A telling insight into the depth of that delusion arose around the recent revelation that Mullah Omar, the presumed leader of the Afghanistan Taliban, had actually been dead for two years. At the time of the discovery, "a Western official in Kabul... speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering colleagues" told the New York Times that the illusion of a still-living Mullah Omar had helped keep "hidden a simple truth that we don’t really know what’s going on or who we’re fighting on any given day, and who their backers are."
To find another point at which the U.S. was so adrift in its foreign policy, we’d probably have to go back to the Vietnam War. But at that point, at least we had a Congress playing an immensely important role. When faced with an intransigent and out-of-touch-with-reality White House, it passed the War Powers Act. Henceforth, a president would be required to secure congressional approval for sustained military action. In 2011, however, Barack Obama shredded that act with his Libyan bombing campaign during which his administration claimed the White House had the right to unilaterally bomb another country indefinitely, so long as no American pilots were injured. The reaction of that Congress to the usurpation of its authority? We’re still waiting. The fact is that most Congressional Republicans would actually prefer even more war and most Democrats don’t dislike war, however stupid, nearly so much when it’s a Democrat running it.
At the current moment, we needn’t wait for any official military explanation of the "collateral damage" in that Afghanistan hospital bombing. As General Otto and Ambassador Powers have aptly pointed out, another "Oops, our bad," just won’t cut it. What we do have to wait for, unfortunately, is a Congress willing to point out that the potential blowback from Russia’s bombing of Syria also holds true for our own actions – in spades. So while we enjoy the current rush of enthusiasm in the race to make a new president, we might also want to spend a little time figuring out how we get a Congress willing and able to inject sanity into our foreign policy when the White House won’t.