TCS Daily

Myopic Congress

By Brian E. Finch - March 12, 2002 12:00 AM

One of the major problems facing Democrats in the post 9/11 world is how to support the war on terrorism while simultaneously opposing President George Bush and the Republican Party. Democrats unveiled their newest strategy late last month when Senators Robert Byrd and Tom Daschle launched attacks on the President's apparent lack of direction in the war on terror. Byrd and Daschle questioned the lack of an "exit strategy" in Afghanistan and made ominous statements to the effect that the President would not be receiving a blank check from Congress to fund the war, much less his proposed military buildup.

Republicans reacted angrily, charging that the Democratic criticisms were unfounded and that it was entirely improper to criticize the conduct of an ongoing war. Republicans have since toned down their criticism, and the sudden flare up of intense fighting in Afghanistan made the Democratic attacks look quite ill-advised. Still, it is clear that the Democrats intend to take jabs at the President's handling of the war in a continuing effort to score political points against the GOP.

The criticisms launched by the Democrats are a classic example of right and wrong: Democrats are right to assert that they have a role in the war, but the substance of their criticisms is entirely wrong. Democrats are certainly entitled to comment on the conduct of the war. It would be irresponsible of Congress to sit idly by while the President conducted war operations. The Constitution carefully divides foreign policy duties amongst the various braches of government, and Congress stands as a vital check against an overly adventurous President. At the same time, the Democrats must understand that they cannot operate as a collection of armchair generals. The tactical control of the military is entrusted to the President, and Congress should concern itself with only the broadest of military issues. Congress simply does not have the capability to direct the conduct of a war. Indeed, history shows that when Congress has tried to exert excess control over military matters, the results have been disastrous.

Commentators are enamored with the idea that World War II was the last time the country was truly united. The United States faced three enemies who were the physical embodiment of evil, and the nation stood united in defiance to their tyranny. The story goes that unity extended into government as well, as Congress and the President stood together to ensure victory. To paraphrase Gen. Max Hoffman, the picture presented to posterity is far different from real events.

The truth is that during World War II Congress constantly looked for ways to exert influence over the military effort. A favorite area in which Congress asserted its influence was the war budget, and one particular decision is highly relevant to today. Congress, concerned about the vast amounts being spent on the war effort, took a look at the budget to see where savings could be made. One area in particular stood out- artillery ammunition. According to military historians James Dunnigan and Albert Nofi, the U.S. military (thanks to careful planning) had huge stockpiles of artillery shells available in the first two years of the war. However, relatively few divisions were engaged in battle during that time, and so few shells were used. Congress, noting the large stockpiles of shells, felt that the tremendous amount of money being spent on ammunition was a "waste." Dunnigan and Nofi note that based on that conclusion, Congress felt that cash would be spent elsewhere and ordered significant cuts in artillery shell production.

Unfortunately for the war effort, a little event called D-Day occurred just as the production cuts began to take hold. The cuts were immediately reversed, but their effect had already taken hold. Artillery gunners ran into chronic ammunition shortage problems. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose writes in Citizen Soldiers that the artillery shell shortage (combined with other logistical issues) limited gunners by October 1944 to firing off only a few rounds per day. Ambrose tells how when the Army complained about the shell shortage, the War Department told the Army it was shooting too much!

To consider the impact of this shortage, one has to understand the importance of American artillery in World War II. American artillery was one of the great equalizers of its day, helping to offset the some of the strong advantages the German Army retained (superior tanks, well-prepared defensive positions etc.). According to Dunnigan and Nofi, the Germans considered the American artillery advantage "unfair," and Ambrose documents how superior German units were routinely wiped out thanks to devastating artillery barrages. Without ammunition, however, this advantage was nullified.

Dunnigan and Nofi argue that the lack of ammunition played a significant part in allowing a large portion of the German Army to regroup and rearm in the Fall of 1944. The result of that respite, Dunnigan and Nofi argue, was the German Army's Ardennes Offensive, also known as the Battle of the Bulge. The urge to save pennies, they claim, cost lives and extended the war.

The lesson to be drawn from the artillery debacle is simple: Congress should not make simplistic, politically attractive budget decisions in the midst of an ongoing war. As much as politicians love to present budgetary forecasts and visually impressive charts to show future spending requirements and impacts, the current war is one that defies that predilection. Sen. Byrd asked rhetorically (and quite myopically) "when will we know when we have achieved victory?" The somewhat unfortunate answer to that is that we won't know because our enemy is not a nation-state with a well organized military. It is a loose organization that cannot be completely eliminated in a set piece battle. It is a foe that will have to be constantly battled in whatever location it has chosen to attach its parasitic jaws.

Beyond that, the Democrats are being far too simplistic when they argue, as Daschle did, that America will not be safe "until we have broken the back of al Qaeda." Qaeda is not the only threat to America that currently exists, and others are certain to spawn in the future. Arguing that the defeat of al Qaeda will make America safe is akin to arguing that curing cancer ensures human immortality. Of course it does not - it simply means that we move on to the next disease that threatens our collective health.

Thus, when Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad argues that the Bush Administration is "bootstrapping" the Afghanistan conflict into the bigger defense budget it had always wanted, he is completely wrong. The request for more defense funding is not a "budget tactic"; rather it is recognition of the full spectrum of threats that face America. As President Bush has made clear, we need to be prepared to face al Qaeda and all future threats, whether they are terrorist groups or states that would sponsor them.

Certainly, Congress will have legitimate questions to raise about defense budget priorities in the future (the Pentagon does have a habit of asking for items that are not necessarily needed). The criticisms being launched from the Democratic Party appear, however, to be nothing more than politically motivated attempts to undercut support for Republicans. Such short-sighted behavior is extraordinarily unwise. Democrats should heed a favorite saying of one of their heroes, Tip O'Neill, who often quipped "all politics is local." That is true here, as if Democrats force cuts that run too deep the blood that will be spilled as a result will not be in a Belgian forest, but rather in a crowded Congressional district.

Brian E. Finch is attorney in Washington, D.C.

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