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“We are asking here in Washington for some action, action from the Congress of the United States of America which has the power to raise and maintain armies, and which by the Constitution also has the power to declare war. We have come here, not to the President, because we believe that this body can be responsive to the will of the people, and we believe that the will of the people says that we should be out of Vietnam now.”
Those were the emotional words of a 27-year-old John Kerry, dressed in green fatigues, Silver Star, and Purple Heart ribbons as he shocked the country with his antiwar testimony before a crowded Senate Foreign Relations committee in 1971. Kerry’s fiery thirty-minute condemnation of the war became instantly legendary for questioning the reasons our military was in Vietnam; revealing the fact that the nation had turned its back on veterans; and slamming President Nixon for refusing to pull out.
It was a definitive moment for the antiwar movement made possible because chairman William Fulbright called Kerry to testify. Thirty-eight years later, Senator Kerry now sits in Fulbright’s seat. Along with Rep. Howard Berman, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Kerry has the power to focus the national spotlight on a similar quagmire, the war in Afghanistan. And as the Obama administration just committed an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan at a cost of $775,000 per soldier every year, oversight hearings can’t come soon enough.
Congressional oversight has historically been essential to government accountability in wartime. It dates back to 1792, when the House used hearings to investigate the War Department for a military fiasco in Indian territory that left 600 soldiers dead. During the Civil War, a joint congressional committee forced the resignation of President Lincoln’s first Secretary of War by exposing corruption and mismanagement. In World War II, Senator Truman’s Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program held hundreds of hearings that eventually saved the country $15 billion (roughly $200 billion today). Senator Lyndon Johnson used oversight during the Korean War to question the efficiency and waste of military agencies. And the Fulbright Hearings were followed by decades of vigorous oversight hearings that included the Church committee investigations into CIA covert operations and intelligence gather, the joint committees that placed the Iran-contra affair under the microscope, and the hearings used to review US military operations in Kosovo.
In all of these instances, Congress upheld its responsibility to investigate military spending, expose scandal, hear expert testimony, and challenge policymakers and the implementation of foreign policy. And as The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner noted, “the most effective oversight has been bipartisan, often with the President’s own party challenging his policies.” Of course, our country’s proud history of congressional oversight came crashing down during the majority of President Bush’s time in office. From 2000-2006, the administration largely eluded oversight, as Congress failed to confront the executive branch on the invasion of Afghanistan, the erroneous prewar intelligence that led us into Iraq, and the conduct of both wars, not to mention the torture of detainees and the administration’s reliance on mercenary contractors who have made hundreds of billions from these wars.
But the Bush administration’s years of blatant disregard for our legal system have ended. Though Congress remains deeply polarized, we have a Democratic majority in both houses, and an administration that presumably is more amenable to congressional oversight. It now falls to Congress to restore this system of checks and balances, and they can start by examining the policies and proposed military spending for Afghanistan, enlightening the American public about the true costs of a drawn-out war. As Andrew Bacevich, professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, told me, “The purpose of congressional oversight hearings ought to be an educational one. We’re not playing a game of ‘gotcha’ or trying to embarrass anyone. Congress should inform the public about the reality of policy, soliciting a wide variety of views in order to assemble as complete a picture as possible.”
Bacevich, a vocal critic of the war in Afghanistan, said it appeared President Obama put the cart before the horse, making his decision to send more troops without having completed the policy analysis various institutions have been working on. He remains skeptical that we will see oversight in Afghanistan, considering there has not been any institutionalized or concerted effort to monitor how the global war on terror–what Robert Gates has called the “Long War”–has been conducted and what it aims to achieve. That said, Bacevich agreed that if any one Senator could bring about oversight, it would be John Kerry.
Kerry is in the perfect position to call for hearings, not only because he chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee, but also because he has nothing to lose in terms of political standing. Chances are he will not be President, nor will he serve as Secretary of State in the Obama administration. If Kerry wants to leave a lasting mark, it could be through hearings and investigations that rein in the Long War.
Recently, when Kerry compared Vietnam to Afghanistan during Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of State confirmation hearings, we saw a glimpse of that passionate 27 year old who once brought President Nixon and the nation to its knees:
“I am deeply concerned that, at least thus far, our policy in Afghanistan has kind of been on automatic.…Our original goal was to go in there and take on Al Qaeda. It was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. It was not to adopt the 51st state of the United States. It was not to try to impose a form of government, no matter how much we believe in it and support it, but that is — that is the mission, at least, as it is being defined today.”
Now, if we could only urge Kerry to act boldly on that rhetoric, and, with his counterpart Berman in the House, let the hearings begin.