What have we learned from the last decade of war? Those years should have taught us that when going to war, our government must:
- be careful when defining a military mission,
- speak forthrightly with the American people about the sacrifices they will be called to make,
- plan more than one satisfactory end to the conflict, and
- be humble about what we think we know.
These lessons should be at the front of our minds when Congress votes today on whether to arm groups in Syria.
Today’s amendment ostensibly is aimed at destroying ISIS—yet you’d hardly know it from reading the amendment’s text. The world has witnessed with horror the evil of ISIS: the public beheading of innocents, the killing of Christians, Muslims, and others.
The amendment’s focus—arming groups fighting the Assad government in Syria—has little to do with defeating ISIS. The mission that the amendment advances plainly isn’t the defeat of ISIS; it’s the defeat of Assad.
Americans stood overwhelmingly against entangling our Armed Forces in the Syrian civil war a year ago. If Congress chooses to arm groups in Syria, it must explain to the American people not only why that mission is necessary but also the sacrifices that that mission entails.
The Obama administration has tried to rally support for U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war by implying that our help would be at arm’s length. The amendment Congress will vote on broadly authorizes “assistance” to groups in Syria. It does not specify what types of weapons our government will give the groups. It does not prohibit boots on the ground. (The amendment is silent on the president’s power to order our troops to fight in the civil war; it states only that Congress doesn’t provide “specific statutory authorization” for such escalation.) It does not state the financial cost of the war.
As we should have learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must plan for multiple satisfactory ends to military conflicts before we commence them.
If the Syrian groups that are “appropriately vetted” (the amendment’s language) succeed and oust Assad, what would result? Would the groups assemble a coalition government of anti-Assad fighters, and would that coalition include ISIS? What would happen to the Alawites and Christians who stood with Assad? To what extent would the U.S. government be obligated to occupy Syria to rebuild the government? If each of the groups went its own way, would Syria’s territory be broken apart, and if so, would ISIS control one of the resulting countries?
If the Syrian groups that we support begin to lose, would we let them be defeated? If not, is there any limit to American involvement in the war?
Perhaps some in the administration or Congress have answers to these questions. But the amendment we’ll vote on today contains none of them.
Above all, when Congress considers serious actions—especially war—we must be humble about what we think we know. We don’t know very much about the groups we propose to support or even how we intend to vet those groups. Reports in the last week suggest that some of the “appropriately vetted” groups have struck deals with ISIS, although the groups dispute the claim. The amendment requires the administration to report on its efforts to prevent our arms and resources from ending up in the wrong hands, but we know little about those precautions or their effectiveness.
Today, I will vote against the amendment to arm groups in Syria. There is a wide misalignment between the rhetoric of defeating ISIS and the amendment’s actual mission of arming certain groups in the Syrian civil war. The amendment provides few limits on the type of assistance that our government may commit, and the exit out of the civil war is undefined. And given what’s happened in our country’s most recent wars, our leaders seem to have unjustified confidence in their own ability to execute a plan with so many unknowns.
Some of my colleagues no doubt will come to different judgments on these questions. But it’s essential that they consider the questions carefully. That the president wants the authority to intervene in the Syrian civil war is not a sufficient reason to give him that power. Under the Constitution, it is Congress’s independent responsibility to commence war.
We are the representatives of the American people. The government is proposing to take their resources and to put their children’s lives at risk. I encourage all my colleagues to give the decision the weight it is due.
Rep. Capuano (D-MA) writes:
The House tomorrow will vote on a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government beyond September 30th. As part of that legislation, the House will also consider an amendment to provide funds to arm some Syrian rebels with certain conditions imposed. Here is the text of the amendment if you would like more detail.
Over the past few days my staff and I have attended numerous meetings, asking questions and gathering information. I wrote last week that I remain skeptical about arming the rebels but I am open to listening. I have approached all of the briefings this week with that perspective; I am keeping an open mind and am working to fully understand all aspects of current circumstances as well as strategies to address them.
Based on what I have read and heard, my opinion remains the same. I believe that the President should continue the air campaign against ISIS in order to protect our interests and allies. The Administration should continue building an international coalition; and the strategy should be refined as more information becomes available and as circumstances change on the ground. Today, America does not yet have enough reliable allies willing to shoulder enough of the burden in this effort. Today, we have not vetted any faction within the Syrian opposition enough to trust them. Let’s not forget, a year ago, many ISIS fighters would have been trained by the U.S. as part of a “trusted” force.
At this time, I cannot support this amendment. If the strategy is clarified and international partners make firm and explicit commitments to participate, Congress can and should be called back into session immediately for further discussion and a vote on the matter. The House should not rush to judgment in such a complicated region until there is more certainty surrounding our alliances and the goals of any mission.
Equally important, this issue should not be an amendment to a Continuing Resolution necessary to keep the federal government running until after the election. These are separate and distinct issues and each is important enough to be voted on separately. Absent additional information, I will vote NO on the amendment.
Congressman Joe Kennedy III today released the following statement after voting against a House proposal to authorize funding for arming and training moderate Syrian rebels.
“Left unchecked, ISIL poses a grave threat to our allies and interests in the Middle East and – potentially – to the US homeland. Defeating them will require military action, diplomatic strength, coordinated allies throughout the region and viable partners on the ground in both Syria and Iraq. This means, however, that the authorization sought by the President today is not an isolated action but a piece of a much larger mission that could involve US resources and personnel for years to come. No matter how targeted, the decisions to train and arm moderate rebels in Syria does not exist in a vacuum. It is a step towards escalating a costly, complex, and currently open-ended military engagement overseas. That’s not a step we can take lightly, quickly, or piecemeal. If the Administration is asking our men and women in uniform, their families and the American public to stand behind this mission, they must come to Congress and allow for the kind of thorough, comprehensive deliberation that decisions of war and peace demand.”
The amendment to arm Syrian rebels passed 273-156. Rep. Reed voted Aye. It must have been a difficult decision. I have no quarrel with Rep. Reed’s vote, but I do wish he would explain his reasoning.