It’s hard to think of an incident that more effectively sums up the current state of congressional national security oversight than the comments made by Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) during the House’s recent hearings on the Afghanistan withdrawal. As Secretary of State Tony Blinken attempted to respond to a question, Mast simply talked over him: “I do not wish to hear from you. I’m not yielding you a moment of time… I don’t wish to hear your lies.”
This is the pure, platonic version of bad congressional oversight: Refusing to even listen to the witnesses that committees call on foreign policy questions. But even when it isn’t this blatant, Congress’ behavior when conducting oversight is often appalling. There are undoubtedly those in Congress who are pushing for the body to reclaim some of its role in the foreign policy process.
Yet, as recent hearings on Afghanistan have shown, Congress all too often uses its oversight role to grandstand, while avoiding its core responsibility: Asking hard questions about US foreign policy and US conduct.
WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING ON THE HILL
Over the last few weeks, both the House and Senate have engaged in hearings with senior officials from the Biden administration on the question of Afghanistan. America’s longest war has always deserved more scrutiny from Congress than it actually received. The chaotic final days of the 20-year war provided an obvious opening for Congress to explore the bigger picture questions: Why did America fail in Afghanistan? Who is responsible? And how can we avoid repeating these errors?
Whether it’s failing to ask questions on Afghanistan or holding nominees to make a political point, Congress has pursued partisan political fights at the expense of improving national security outcomes.
Indeed, a variety of unpleasant details about the war in Afghanistan have become known in recent years, whether from leaks — such as those contained in the Washington Post’s Afghanistan papers — or from government sources like the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) quarterly reports. These official and leaked reports on Afghanistan even tend to agree on some key points, chief among them the idea that America’s war effort was repeatedly undermined by factors like rotational deployments, ongoing Afghan corruption, or the US approach to poppy production. More importantly, however, these sources also showed that officials knew early in the war that these factors were problematic, and that the conflict could not be won; they nonetheless persisted with the war.
Yet, hearings on Afghanistan barely touched on the broader issues raised by these revelations. Instead, senior military and civilian officials were called to the Hill to answer questions about the withdrawal itself, and the chaos that engulfed Kabul in the final days of American presence. Worse still, the questioning fell almost entirely along partisan lines: Republicans lambasting the Biden administration for its choice to withdraw from Afghanistan, and Democrats trying to pin the blame on former President Donald Trump’s 2020 deal with the Taliban.
These hearings might have served a political purpose, but they did little to understand or achieve accountability for the many failures of the war in Afghanistan. This begs the question: Are members of Congress really seeking accountability on US failures in Afghanistan or are they using the tragic war for their own political gain as midterm elections loom?
THE PROBLEM WITH SHORTSIGHTED SENATORS
Unfortunately, congressional disinterest and politicization of foreign policy is par for the course these days. Consider the question of appointments. The Senate plays a key role in confirming the executive’s political appointees, whether they are ambassadors or officials in key national security agencies like the Departments of Defense, State, and Treasury. Yet, according to the Partnership for Public Service, an NGO which tracks the data on appointments, nine months into the administration, only 154 of Biden’s 390 nominees have managed to obtain Senate confirmation. The cause is a little-used rule that allows any single Senator to place a hold on nominees, preventing them from being quickly passed through the nomination process, and requiring Senate leadership to use scarce floor time to pass nominations.
This isn’t a new tactic. It has typically been used by Senators to highlight objections to specific nominees; Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) used it to slow several of Trump’s intelligence appointments, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) used it to prevent the appointment of several former bankers to the Obama-era Treasury Department. Today’s situation, however, is an unprecedented blanket ban on all nominees, with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) promising to hold all national security nominees until the Biden administration reimposes sanctions related to the Nordstream II pipeline. Not to be outdone, Cruz’s colleague Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has threatened that he will also hold up all national security nominations if the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense do not resign.
Again, this approach may be politically useful, but it is deeply damaging to national security. Neither Senator’s demands are reasonable or feasible, leaving no clear path out of this impasse. Only two ambassadors have been confirmed in the nine months since the start of the Biden administration; only a dozen State Department nominees have been able to take up their positions. Meanwhile, key appointee roles in the Defense, Treasury, and State Departments go unfilled.
COME ON CONGRESS
Two Congressmen, Peter Meijer (R-MI) and James McGovern (D-MA) recently introduced a new bill, the National Security Reforms and Accountability Act (NSRAA), which aims to restore some more congressional oversight by requiring congressional approval before a president can sell arms, deploy troops, or declare a state of emergency. It’s only the latest attempt to rebalance responsibility for national security between the executive and the administration. It is certainly true that the balance between executive and Congress on foreign policy has gotten seriously out of whack; today, Congress can barely be said to fulfill its constitutional duties on foreign policy.
Yet, if Congress wants to reclaim its national security powers, the last couple of months have hardly been a ringing endorsement for the idea that Congress would — or could — provide good, effective oversight of foreign policy issues. Whether it’s failing to ask questions on Afghanistan or holding nominees to make a political point, Congress has instead — and too often — pursued partisan political fights at the expense of improving national security outcomes.
Do better, Congress.
Emma Ashford is a columnist at Inkstick and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative.