Politics & Policy

It’s 10 P.M., Do You Know Where America’s Troops Are?

U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division troops during training near Qayyarah West Airfield, Iraq, in July. (Photo: Corporal Rachel Diehm)
Apparently our senators don’t know what military conflicts the country happens to be engaged in, and they’re okay with that.

This week I began to worry that Senator Lindsey Graham isn’t as happy as he should be. He’s always been affable. And, rare for Washington, he’s sometimes intentionally funny. But I think he could have more job satisfaction. Graham is a long-serving member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a committed hawk. He supports all the usual moves. Surging in Afghanistan, taking the fight to ISIS in Iraq, and helping the “moderate rebels” in Syria. But he also talks up the more obscure and exotic causes. He was for protecting Georgia from the Russians and sending arms to Ukraine. He’s kind of a hipster hawk. He’s really into interventions before they become cool.

But when the news broke that four U.S. Special Forces troops were killed in Niger, Lindsey Graham confessed to the media that he didn’t know we had troops there. “I didn’t know there was 1,000 troops in Niger,” he told Chuck Todd. He admitted that things weren’t ideal. “We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing. So John McCain is going to try to create a new system to make sure that we can answer the question [about] why we were there.”

 “They are going to brief us next week as to why they were there and what they were doing,” he said.

They are going to inform us.

And, lo, by mid-week Graham was informed and informing. Sort of. “This war is getting hot in places that it’s been cool, and we’ve got to go where the enemy takes us,” he said. “As we suppress the enemy in the Mideast, they’re going to move, they’re not going to quit.”

A different “they.” Somehow you could tell that once they explained what “they” were doing, Senator Graham would be all for sending American troops over there. “They” can’t get away, with it, so they say.

I would have guessed that Lindsey Graham would support sending troops to Niger. But I feel bad that he missed out on the immense satisfaction of knowing they were there. Perhaps Republicans were too busy telling themselves and the public that President Barack Obama had withdrawn the United States from the world, so they missed the letters and briefings in which the White House informed them he had established a drone base there and then raised the number of boots on the ground.

Graham isn’t alone in the Senate. Chuck Schumer and Bob Casey also both confessed to not really knowing that the U.S. had approximately 1,000 troops occasionally doing violent things in Niger: “I think there’s a lot of work that both parties and both branches of government need to do, “ Casey said. “Not only to stay more informed but to focus on why we’re there and what happened to get to the bottom of this.”

This week’s news about the death of four soldiers, and senatorial ignorance about our military’s whereabouts, is the sort of eye-popping detail historians savor putting into their books, the ones with titles that include the words “Decline” or “Fall” in them.

The truth is that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that launched the War on Terror has done a few things to the American way of war. It has made the war on al-Qaeda go on forever, as in Afghanistan. It makes it easy to re-enter Iraq to fight ISIS. It somehow allowed us to send Special Forces to help in a battle against al-Qaeda’s local enemy, Bashar al-Assad. It allows us to assist the Saudis in their war against Houthi-dominated parts of Yemen. And now in Niger.

The 2001 AUMF has also moved war decisions and oversight farther away from Congress. Now all the important matters are decided by men in the White House and in the Pentagon. In a way, you could say that American foreign-policy decision-making resembles the drones that increasingly do the killing. It’s an unmanned foreign policy. Lindsey Graham doesn’t know where the bombs are falling anymore than a traditional fighter pilot does. Someone else, in a dark room controls that. But, once Lindsey Graham finds out, he’ll be okay with it.

And, for now, the American people seem to be okay with an unmanned foreign policy, piloted from dark rooms, flying our munitions into new nations without say so from Congress, without Congress even knowing.


An AUMF Debate Is Unlike to Be Productive in This Political Climate

Senate Backs Excess War Power for the President

Still Waiting on a Peace Dividend


The Latest