What few people recognize is how far the US Congress has fallen, and how quickly. US pop culture, almost from the beginning, has featured a high degree of skepticism about Congress. They’ve always been known as a bunch of corrupt, pompous windbags. That’s a healthy attitude to take towards one’s government. But I think this constant attitude of contempt has served to hide Congress’s fall.
With the one two punch of Newt Gingrich’s “reforms” in the 1990’s (discussed here) and the expansion of the government after 9/11, Congress has lost the plot almost entirely. It’s only by looking at the power and principle that Congress could stand on just a few short decades ago, that we can get the full picture. That’s what this week’s video comparing Congress’s abdication of responsibility for Yemen to their treatment of Nicaragua in the 1980’s is intended to do.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there, over the past couple weeks I’ve been talking about how weak the US Congress has become. I’ve also spent less time than I should talking about the accelerating horror that is the crisis in Yemen. Today I’ll point out just how deeply these two things are connected. The world is full of difficult problems. Yemen is not a difficult problem. Saudi Arabia is strangling the country, putting millions in danger of starvation, and the United States is helping them do it. The US government could stop it tomorrow, and save thousands or possibly millions of lives.
Two presidents, one out of political calculation, and one out of an inability to see the world complexly, signed us up and kept us in this project. It is not a subtle, easily hidden project. Real military assets, from intelligence to US military refueling planes are being used to send Saudi and UAE bombers to kill children. If we were primarily fighting ISIS or Al Queda here, I’d probably still be bitching about it, with little hope of correcting the problem. But we’re not fighting Al Queda in Yemen. We’re fighting Al Queda’s sworn enemies. There is no legal authority for what’s going on here. No Declaration of War. No plausible way to fit this under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.
Yet it continues. It seems as if there are no people of principle or power left in the US Congress. Our congresspeople are supposed to be the ones who rein in our power-mad presidents. It’s congress that’s supposed to do the actual work of governing. Once upon a time that was true. And I don’t mean 100 years ago.
As recently as the 1980s Congress still had the power to tell presidents no. In 1979 the left wing Sandanista movement took power in Nicaragua. The Reagan administration decided that the removal of this government was a priority, so they started funding a bunch of rebel groups, known as the Contras. Congress thought it was a bad idea. So they stopped it. I tend to agree with Congress on that one, but that’s not the point. The point is that as recently as 30 years ago, Congress had the power to slow down a foreign war it disagreed with. Let’s compare the two situations.
In Nicaragua, Reagan could plausibly defend the Contras as brave freedom fighters. We now know quite well that they were a bunch of murdering terrorists, but their supporters could deny it back then. The Contras were a diverse bunch of non-state actors, and any evil they committed could be denied or blamed on someone else. There’s no denying what is being done to Yemen, by Saudi Arabia, a powerful, unitary state, with US support.
Nicaragua was largely a covert operation. Congress actually had to tighten up its blocking of funds to the Contras multiple times. It was slippery and under-the radar by design. The War in Yemen isn’t even covert. The US military is using large expensive refuelling planes to keep it going.
Most importantly Nicaragua was part of a decades long existential conflict. I’d argue that it wasn’t a good way to fight the Cold War, but it fit the fears of the time. In the late 1940s it really did look like the Communists could take over the world. Rational people, and the US public in general, thought that losing the cold war was a real threat in the 1980s as well. The CIA’s job was fighting communists, and most thought that’s what they were doing in Nicaragua. Yemen isn’t in service to anything really, other than arms sales.
So to sum up, back in the 1980s, in Nicaragua, Congress was powerful enough to stop US participation in a war that was easy to ignore, arguably on the side of the good guys, and in service to a decades long fight for the continued existence of the United States and its way of life. That took a lot of courage and power. In 2017, in Yemen, Congress can’t get it together to stop a war that is evil, pointless, public, and helpful to Al Queda, which is supposedly the threat we’ve been fighting for the past 15 years.
Congress doesn’t just need to stop the war in Yemen because it’s the right thing to do. Congress needs to stop the war in Yemen to preserve any self respect at all.
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