The Congressional Spectator

The Congressional Record of Unintended Consequences

With its sorry record, can Congress act prudently? 

By 9.9.13

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Just because Congress may approve a military strike on Syria does not mean it is a wise public policy. A Congress with a 14% approval rating, based on an August Gallup poll, cannot be doing everything right. Look at its record -- especially the unintended consequences of what it has authorized.

Congress has presided explicitly or implicitly over military decisions that have cost the country dearly in lives and capital for over a decade. And neither Congress nor the Administration have owned up to the unintended consequences. The toppling of Saddam Hussein meant removal of the last symbol of secular Arab nationalism, an offset to Islamist fundamentalism, and it emboldened Shiite Iran to eye alignment with the majority Shiite sect in Iraq and become more assertive against the West. Further, the dismissal of thousands of Iraqi Baathist Party members and security forces by the American authority in Baghdad meant pandemonium after the capital was secured. There were limited competent resources to run the finance, electricity, transport, and other ministries. No one bargained for the massive American operating support required -- and where was Congressional oversight?

The invasion of Afghanistan also authorized by Congress resulted in an unintended U.S. presence of almost twelve years and still counting -- long after Mullah Omar was sent into hiding. Moreover, the counterinsurgency model sold to the American people is yielding limited security benefits, with the specter of a resurgent al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban after the U.S. and NATO withdrawal in 2014 -- when there will likely be some stability in a few population centers, with the interior still controlled by warring tribes hostile to the West. The competing and more limited counter-terrorism model, originally espoused by Vice President Joe Biden, will be the protocol after 2014 -- it already is in Yemen, Somalia and other hot spots where insertion teams, precision strikes, drone attacks, and other “stand-off” methods are expected to do the job.

The American people should be prepared for the unintended consequences of a surgical strike on Syria. They could include retaliation against Israel by Hezbollah, which has 50,000 rockets by one estimate, and against western interests by Iran. Iran can attack the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain with medium range rockets, swarm U.S. naval assets in the Persian Gulf with missile patrol boats, harass the coalition in Afghanistan, and it is believed to have sleeper cells in the U.S. Hostilities in the Strait of Hormuz would bring chaos to world oil and commodities trade, and credit and equity markets. Syria, with the second largest military in the Arab world and large stocks of WMD may not sit passively while cruise missiles take out its command and control centers. The response of Russia and China, Syria’s sponsors, would be a known unknown. Cyber retaliation in some form is possible.

It is also Congress that is unable to ferret out the truth about what happened prior to, during, and after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi -- and where Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama were during the hours of the siege which resulted in the death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans at the mission.

From outside the Beltway, Congress looks like a cavalier debating society that does not think things through. For over four years, it has been unable to pass a federal budget and agree on deficit reductions. Serious implementation issues and delays with Obamacare, passed without sufficient support from the American people, have now surfaced. Congress has become notorious for taking five-week vacations at a critical time and ducking issues of substance, such as debt downgrades and the fiscal imperilment of the U.S.

If Congressional authorization is obtained for an attack on Syria, there should be no solace to take. The British Parliament has opted out and says the U.K. will not join the U.S. in a strike. Once mandated to govern Palestine and Mesopotamia after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British may know something about unintended consequences that our Congress and president do not.

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About the Author
Frank Schell is a business consultant and former international banking executive. He serves on the Dean’s International Council of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago where he is a lecturer.