President Obama, who is under pressure from the Pentagon and defense contractors to surge 40,000 additional U.S. troops into occupied Afghanistan, met Tuesday with members of Congress to discuss the sorry state of the mission and its uncertain future.
That’s the good news — sort of.
At least the president is talking to the civilian leaders who, according to the U.S. Constitution, are supposed to be making decisions about whether to engage in and escalate wars.
The bad news is that the president — who disptached Defense Secretary Robert Gates to say before the meeting: “We are not leaving Afghanistan” — did not sit down with members of Congress who have studied the conflict and determined that it is time to develop a flexible exit strategy.
Here is the list of House and Senate members who got the White House invite:
SENATORS: Harry Reid, Majority Leader, D-NV* Dick Durbin, Majority Whip, D-IL * Mitch McConnell, Republican Leader, R-KY* Jon Kyl, Republican Whip, R-AZ * Carl Levin, Armed Services Chair, D-MI* John McCain, Armed Services Ranking Member, R-AZ* Daniel Inouye, Appropriations Chair and Defense Subcommittee Chair, D-HI* Thad Cochran, Appropriations Ranking Member and Defense Subcommittee Ranking, R-MS * John Kerry, Foreign Affairs Chair, D-MA* Richard Lugar, Foreign Affairs Ranking Member, R-IN* Patrick Leahy, Foreign Operations Appropriations Chair, D-VT* Judd Gregg, Foreign Operations Appropriations Ranking Member, R-NH* Dianne Feinstein, Intelligence Committee Chair, D-CA* Kit Bond, Intelligence Committee Ranking Member, R-MO
REPRESENTATIVES: Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA* Steny Hoyer, Majority Leader, D-MD* John Boehner, Republican Leader, R-OH* James Clyburn, Majority Whip, D-SC * Eric Cantor, Republican Whip, R-VA* Ike Skelton, Armed Services Chair, D-MO* Howard McKeon, Armed Services Ranking Member, R-CA* Howard Berman, Foreign Affairs Chair, D-CA* Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Foreign Affairs Ranking Member, R-FL* David Obey, Appropriations Chair, D-WI* Jerry Lewis, Appropriations Ranking Member, R-CA* Nita Lowey, Foreign Operations Appropriations Chair, D-NY * Kay Granger, Foreign Operations Appropriations Ranking Member, R-TX * John Murtha, Appropriations, Defense Subcommittee Chair, D-PA* Bill Young, Appropriations, Defense Subcommittee Ranking Member, R-FL * Silvestre Reyes, Intelligence Committee Chairman, D-TX* Peter Hoekstra, Intelligence Committee Ranking Member, R-MI
Readers will note that there are plenty of Republican hawks — led by McCain — on the list.
And, yes, there are some skeptics — such as Durbin and Kerry.
But where are Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, and Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who have emerged as outspoken advocates for a rethink of the occupation and, in Feingold’s case, a flexible exit strategy? Feingold, a member of the Intelligence Committee who has spent more time than most members in southern Asia, knows the territory well. And he would bring an alternative point of view to what is, after all, being billed as a frank and open discussions of strategy. (White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says: “The president has discussed wanting to hear from all of those that are involved in this, and certainly Congress plays a big role in this.”)
Where is Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern’s name on the list? McGovern has visited Afghanistan, met with troops and commanders, consulted with international security and development strategists, and come to share their conclusion that an escalation of U.S. forces would be a bad idea. The well-regarded vice chair of the Rules Committee is, as well, the sponsor of legislation demanding the development of an exit strategy. That legislation just attracted its 99th cosponsor in the House, meaning that with McGovern himself it now has 100 signed-on backers — including a number of conservative Republicans.
McGovern and Congressman Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, recently circulated a letter opposing General Stanley McChrystal’s bid to shift 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
More than 50 House Democrats and Republicans signed the letter, which argues that “the last thing that our nation needs as it struggles with the pain of a severe economic crisis and a mountain of debt is another military quagmire. We believe that is why recent polls consistently show that a majority of Americans are opposed to a military escalation in Afghanistan.”
The dissenting members are right about the polls. Opposition to the occupation is building.
They are right about the quagmire, a point brilliantly made by Robert Greenwald’s just-released documentary “Rethink Afghanistan”.
The president is right to consult Congress.
But he is wrong — very wrong — to consult only with supporters of the escalation and cautious critics. It reinforces a problem highlighted by Greenwald. “The echo chambers in Washington have long argued that Afghanistan is the war of necessity,” the director explains. “This reasoning excluded any opposing viewpoints and has mired us in what is now perceived as the endless war.”
The president should at least give a hearing to those members of the House and Senate who have had the wherewithal and the courage to challenge the convention wisdom that says the occupation of Afghanistan must continue — and must continue to expand. He would quickly find that there are sound diplomacy-and-development strategies that offer alternatives not just to escalation but to maintaining the occupation.
Instead of limiting the discussion to the defenders of a failed status quo, and those who are satisfied to tinker rather than change direction, Obama should consult the “Rethink Afghanistan” caucus.