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What is the state of legislative oversight in American foreign affairs?

What is the state of legislative oversight in American foreign affairs?

The Constitution

Even following America’s hasty and disorganized withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States remains involved in prominent military conflicts in Libya and Syria (and, frankly, Afghanistan) – not to mention many smaller combat operations in other nations around the world. In these conflict zones, the United States conducts armed drone strikes, and occasionally participates in standard manned operations. While some might be hesitant to formally designate these conflicts as “wars”, these sorts of military operations undeniably cost the United States both lives and treasure. Each of these ongoing conflicts is authorized either through the notoriously vague 2001 AUMF or has no formal authorization at all. 

The Constitution grants the legislature the power to declare war and authorize military conflicts- Article I, Section 8, Clause 11: The Congress shall have Power . . . To declare War. However, over the last eighty years, the legislature has adopted a strategy of passing legislation that authorizes spending on military objectives like counter-terrorisim or regional security as opposed to direct declarations of war as prescribed in the Constitution. As a consequence, despite being at war for nearly half of the time between the 1940’s and the present day, the United States legislature has not voted to authorize a war since 1941at the start of American involvement in World War II.

Despite being a broadly known and well established problem (the legislature did not vote to authorize the War in Korea or the War in Vietnam), the wounds that come from the legislative branch’s unwillingness to take responsibility of foreign policy decision making are still being inflicted today. President Obama famously begged Congress for authorization in Syria.  S.J. Res. 21, the legislation proposed in order to consider the military authorization, was never brought up for a vote. Even without the legislature’s approval President Obama went on to authorize a conflict that is still resulting in American casualties today

The legislature shunned the wisdom of its collective 535 members in favor of one single person’s judgment- in my opinion, this sort of decision making process is akin to begging for mistakes to be made. It forces us to ask if our representatives are taking their responsibilities in foreign affairs seriously. 

With this context in mind, it is important to think about the oversight being conducted by the legislative branch in foreign affairs. According to research conducted by Linda Fowler, a professor of political science at Dartmouth, the legislative branch is conducting oversight hearings at a historically low rate. More than that, when oversight hearings do take place, Fowler’s research suggests that hearings have become increasingly about performative rhetoric as opposed to serious consideration or problem solving.

To amplify this problem further, research suggests that as the public becomes increasingly aware of the costs and outcomes of the conflicts their countries are involved in, they become less supportive of continuing those conflicts. Without the signaling from the legislature that today’s conflicts deserve serious attention, the media does not provide consistent coverage of ongoing conflicts, and the citizenry at large remain uninformed about truly pressing issues. As a consequence, conflicts with questionable authorizations can quickly become quagmires. 

Given the fact that the 2001 AUMF was voted on in, well, 2001, and wars being waged without congressional authorization are obviously a major cause for concern – Americans of all political persuasions should be frightened by this. More than that, the legislative branch should live up to its responsibility to conduct consistent oversight. This becomes even more important given the contradictions between the legislation that is currently being used to authorize many ongoing conflicts and America’s new posture in Afghanistan with the Taliban returning to control of the country. 

The bulk of the conflict in Afghanistan might be coming to an end, but we need to keep a careful eye on the future -as well as today’s continuing conflicts- in order to avoid this sort of mess down the line.


Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association