U.S. Strategy in Syria Has Failed
Washington Must Acknowledge That It Can’t Build a State
The United States faces unprecedented challenges abroad. The post-colonial status quo in the Middle East is breaking down, and terrorist groups such as Islamic State (also called ISIS) and al Qaeda present a grave threat to U.S. national security. Traditional powers such as Russia and China are challenging international norms and pushing the boundaries of their influence. And threats that know no borders—such as pandemic disease and global climate change—continue to grow. The world has been fundamentally reordered, but the United States’ foreign policy toolbox has gone largely unchanged during this time of immense global transition.
The new world order demands that the United States think anew about the tools that it will use to lead the world, including reaching beyond the military budget to rediscover the power of non-kinetic statecraft. As relatively new members of the U.S. Senate on the Foreign Relations, Appropriations, Armed Services, and Intelligence Committees, we believe that Congress needs to help chart a new course to meet these challenges and play a more active role to help shape foreign policy coming out of the executive branch. Toward that end, we offer a set of forward-looking and pragmatic principles that should guide U.S. foreign policy and Congress’ foreign policy agenda.
First, we believe that the United States needs a new Marshall Plan for at-risk regions. In the years following World War II, the promise of military protection, economic aid, and democratic ideals brought together reliable allies under the American banner. Since then, foreign aid, as a percentage of U.S. GDP, has declined. Now is the time to reinvest in this work, as countries under the economic thumb of Russia or China, and communities seeking protection from extremist groups, are crying out for help that smart, nimble U.S. foreign aid can provide. We should create a five-year plan to significantly improve quality of life in developing Middle Eastern and African nations threatened by terrorism, as well as vulnerable nations near Russia and China, and fund every dime of the plan.
Second, we believe that the United States is strongest when it works with partners and allies. Put simply, working bilaterally and through international organizations such as NATO and the United Nations is more effective and costs the United States less. The United States always retains the right to act unilaterally to defend against imminent threats; however, in the wake of the Iraq War, the United States should be newly cognizant of the moral and practical risks of unilateral action. If no allies are willing to join it, its isolation should cause it to rethink its actions.
Third, we believe that when we send U.S. service members to fight, the United States must always have clear goals and exit strategies, act only with congressional authorization, and uphold its commitment to care for every serviceman and woman when they return. From Vietnam to the current conflict in Iraq, the United States has violated these simple rules. Congress must demand that military and civilian leaders lay out specific and achievable objectives and timelines before signing off on military action, and must demand that money be set aside to care for veterans of wars as a condition of support for the engagement. And Congress should not allow broad authorizations for war, such as the 9/11 Authorization of Military Force, to exist in perpetuity simply because it is afraid to debate new, narrower war resolutions.
Fourth, we believe that when military action is deemed necessary for reasons other than self-defense, it should serve as a shaping mechanism for local political solutions. In modern times, conventional armies rarely march against each other and formal peace treaties are few and far between. That means that conflicts end only when political conditions on the ground change to allow peace to persevere. Military interventions should focus on creating space for local political solutions to the underlying problems for unrest. And if there is no achievable political solution on the ground, it should cause Congress to question the wisdom of the proposed military action.
Fifth, we believe that covert actions such as mass surveillance and large-scale CIA lethal operations must be constrained. The dramatic expansion of the U.S. intelligence apparatus after 9/11, largely unseen and unchecked, requires greater oversight and restraint. Decisions about surveillance, lethal drone strikes, and interrogation techniques must be made in the light of day with greater congressional oversight. For example, the United States should consolidate authority for offensive counterterrorism operations at the Department of Defense instead of the CIA, which has more limited congressional oversight.
Sixth, we believe that the United States should practice what it preaches regarding civil and human rights, and defend its values internationally. America’s reputation as a beacon of freedom and opportunity is a powerful asset. Inadequate respect for civil rights domestically robs from the United States the moral authority to root out abuses and corruption overseas. Actions abroad that are illegal under U.S. law and out of step with American values, such as torture, must be prohibited. Human rights and gender equality should not be viewed as secondary to security issues, but appropriately recognized as essential to long-term global stability.
Seventh, we believe that the United States’ strength abroad is rooted in its strength at home. As we engage with the rest of the world, we must also recognize that America’s ability to project strength abroad depends on a thriving, prosperous foundation at home. How can the United States preach economic empowerment overseas if millions of Americans feel economically hopeless? If Washington is to maintain credible U.S. global leadership, the United States need significant new investments in infrastructure and education, and new policies to address the stagnant incomes and rising costs that are crippling too many American families.
Finally, we believe climate change presents an immediate threat to the world, and the United States must invest time, money, and global political capital to address this crisis. In 2007, a group of 11 retired three-star and four-star admirals and generals unequivocally stated that climate change is a “significant national security challenge” that can serve as a “threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.” The United States must acknowledge what the science and national security experts are already saying—climate change is real, it is happening now, and it is solvable if the United States acts quickly.
Congress can no longer stand idly by, simply reacting to world events. It should reclaim its constitutional prerogative and work with the White House to shape foreign policy. Americans want the United States to lead and be engaged in the world, but are wary of overzealous intervention and want to see a coherent, proactive vision for how America will lead and when we will act. We hope that these eight common-sense principles can serve as guideposts for those of us in the Senate who want the United States to continue to have a robust presence in the world, and recognize that new threats can only be confronted with new strategies and new tools.