Put the Opposition in Loyal Opposition
23 September 2001
President Bush gave a speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday night that the American media and, according to opinion polls, the American public welcomed. Bush was confident and articulate. What I found discomforting was not the speech itself, but the reaction to the speech. At almost regular interludes, virtually every member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, stood and applauded in unison.
I recall reading accounts in my Russian classes in high school of the 26th Communist Party Congress in the Soviet Union, held in 1981. Speeches by Brezhnev and other members of the Politburo were notable not for their content but for the notations of "(Applause)" or "(Sustained Applause)" at the points deemed most important by the Communist Party. When Democrats in Congress find even the most ordinary points in a speech worthy of a standing ovation, then our two-party political system is little more than a veneer on top of a one-party state.
Among the very few dissenting voices in the past 10 days were two Massachusetts Democrats, who subsequently heard loud and continued criticisms from the media. A few days after the hijackings, Marty Meehan questioned whether Air Force One was a target of the hijackers, as White House spokesman Ari Fleischer claimed. Richard Neal described the performance of President Bush in the first few days after the hijackings as "bland." Meehan did not question the President's performance, but only the fatuous explanations of Fleischer and his colleagues. In normal times, Neal's comment would be praising Bush by the faintest of damns. Despite the actual mildness of their remarks, these two representatives stood out for the relative rancor of their remarks.
In any military conflict, the President as Commander-in-Chief controls the armed forces. American politicians have usually given some deference to the President in military and foreign affairs. Too often, however, Congress has allowed the President to prosecute actions that are wars in all but name. Even when Congress asserts its rights, as in the War Powers Act of 1973, it has lacked the will to follow up on those rights. In conflict after conflict, Congress has failed to exercise its rights under the War Powers Act, to limit foreign military activities to 60 days in duration.
Congress not only responds to public opinion, but it also leads public opinion. Anyone advocating peace, or economic sanctions against Afghanistan, or an international police action, or a United Nations action against Afghanistan, or even very strict limits on collateral damage is acting with far more restraint than almost every member of Congress. Current polls in Europe and Canada find that even in countries like France and the United Kingdom, which had hundreds of citizens perish in the attacks, majorities oppose immediate military action. In Europe and Canada, unlike the United States, the mainstream political parties do not agree on the main courses of action against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. In the United States, where there is no real debate in the chambers of Congress, the vast majority of respondents to polls call for retribution.
Even allowing for the deference that comes with wartime, Democrats in Congress have abdicated their responsibility to question Republican policy. The most glaring example this week was the decision by Senate Democrats not to cut $1.3 billion in funds for missile defense projects that threaten to violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
The Ballistic Missile Defense program should have come under extreme scrutiny in the aftermath of the events of 11 September. As others have noted, the hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon underscored that ballistic missiles are far from the only possible weapons of mass destruction. The attacks also showed, however, that technology required for a perfect defense is far from perfect itself. In theory, the attacks of 11 September should have been impossible. Metal detection systems should have prevented the hijackers from boarding aircraft with the weapons that they had. Each pilot should have alerted control towers that the plane was hijacked. The world's best fighter aircraft should have intercepted the airplanes before they crashed into buildings. Although each of these systems fell short, Congress has committed several billions of dollars just this year to the notion that computers will detect missile launches, will discriminate between warheads and decoys, and will hit and destroy each of the warheads.
Finally, our need and desire to form as broad a coalition against the Taliban government in Afghanistan relies in great part on the economic and military treaties that we have throughout the world. Yet Democrats saw little need to preserve the arms control treaty that served as the base for all of the arms reduction treaties of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Democrats should not throw the ABM treaty away for the sake of loyalty in the time of crisis.
Congressional Democrats need to realize that being the loyal opposition in trying times requires both loyalty and opposition. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the President in times of national crisis is a worthy ideal. But neglecting to debate him or object to his dubious decisions shows an excess of fealty. Actions that determine national and international security call for the most important decisions that Congress can make. These decisions deserve more debate and deliberation, not less, and certainly not none.
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