WASHINGTON — Fifteen years after the start of the Iraq war, Sen. Tammy Duckworth is worried that Congress didn’t learn anything from the controversial conflict.
“We just added Niger as a combat zone for combat pay. We’re talking about troops in Syria permanently,” said Duckworth, D-Illinois, who lost both legs while serving as an Army National Guard helicopter pilot in Iraq in 2004.
“That to me is a very dangerous position to be in. I don’t feel like overall Congress has learned a lesson, and I think most people would just rather keep their head down and not have a vote.”
Duckworth and fellow Iraq war veteran Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., spoke to reporters on the anniversary of the start of that conflict Tuesday to again push for a new authorization for the use of military force for a host of current overseas military missions.
The justifications for military intervention in the Middle East, Africa and other conflict zones still rely on the war powers granted by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. For years, Duckworth and Gallego (along with other Democrats and Republicans) have argued in favor of an updated, more limited military force authorization measure, but a compromise remains elusive.
Earlier in the day, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said his panel will mark up a new authorization proposal on April 19.
“When we go into new countries, when we take on new groups, the Senate would have the ability to weigh in on those issues,” he said during a floor speech. “So I just would like to say to the body and those who are looking in, we are not shying away from this debate.”
But Duckworth and Gallego said lawmakers largely have avoided those difficult conversations on military roles and responsibilities, allowing the White House to make those decisions largely unchecked.
“We’re seeing a military that is expected to engage long-term on multiple fronts. We’re seeing a military that has not been funded in terms of readiness,” Duckworth said. “And we’re adding what we’re expecting them to do.
“We’re talking about Africa. We’re talking about Korea. If we want to have the military engage in a 15-year commitment on three fronts … let’s have that conversation.”
Gallego said he believes that after nearly 18 years of continuous military operations overseas, lawmakers have “a better understanding of how military adventurism can go wrong,” and the strain that puts on military families.
“But we’re not doing anything about it,” he said. “It’s the best of both worlds. We don’t have to take a tough vote, and the military gets to do what they want because the operate under this old authorization. Democrats are just as responsible for this as Republicans.”
Both lawmakers said they were encouraged by increased debate in the House last year pushing for a new war authorization, but said the work is still moving too slow. They’re hopeful that as more young combat veterans enter Congress (42 current lawmakers served in the Iraq and Afghanistan War era) those issues will take more prominence.
“There is an understanding on both sides of the aisle that Congress is failing,” Duckworth said. “(Our troops) keep redeploying and redeploying and redeploying. Now they’re in Afghanistan, now they’re in Iraq, now they’re in Africa, now they’re in Syria.
“They keep showing up and we’re not doing our jobs. We’re too afraid to have this discussion, and turning it all over to the executive branch. We did it under President Obama and we’re doing it under the present administration. And that’s not acceptable.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.