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Congressman John Larson

Representing the 1st District of Connecticut

The La Brea Tar Pit of American Foreign Policy

October 14, 2014
Op-Ed and Letters

Originially published in The Hill on October 14, 2014.

The La Brea tar pits preserve the pre-historic remains of mammals that were entangled in that quagmire and met their demise; even the mighty saber-tooth tiger found it was unable to extract itself from the tar pit that ultimately dragged it down to its death.  The United States continues to grapple with extricating itself from over a decade of military involvement in Iraq. The confluence of world religions and the century-long tribal, regional, and religious disputes have entangled the people of the Middle East, which is metaphorically the equivalent of the tar pit. So any attempt to resolve conflicts by military force alone should be a clear warning sign for policymakers who know such an action would only further entrap us and leave us facing the fate of the saber-tooth.  

What is clearly needed before committing to prolonged action is thorough consideration of how we define the mission and what the exit strategy is – something that Congress must debate.  This approach of evaluating how to determine the scope and timeline of military action was best summed up in 1998 by former President George Herbert Walker Bush, who warned us when he said:

"Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have violated our guideline about not changing objectives in midstream, engaging in ‘mission creep,' and would have incurred incalculable human and political costs… We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq. The coalition would instantly have collapsed, the Arabs deserting it in anger and other allies pulling out as well. Under those circumstances, there was no viable "exit strategy" we could see, violating another of our principles. Furthermore, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-Cold War world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations' mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different--and perhaps barren--outcome." [i]

How prescient he was.

Now, we are facing a new threat in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) whose barbarism and brutality have shocked the conscience of the entire world.  Clearly, something must be done to thwart this group that not only has committed crimes against humanity, but ultimately poses a threat to the United States.

The question is – will we jump blindly into the tar pit, or will we approach this enemy with the required strategy and coalition that will lead to the immediate goal of eliminating the security threat of ISIL and the long-term goal of finding a political solution to establish stability in the region?  Make no mistake, left unchecked, ISIL poses a serious threat.   However, defeating them will require diplomatic coordination, and support from countries in the region, our NATO allies, and the United Nations.

I support the actions the president has taken to this point in using U.S. airpower to strike ISIL, providing humanitarian aid to those who have been victimized by them, and working with the international community to build a strong coalition.  Yet, throughout this time, Congress has sat idle, abdicating its responsibilities to authorize military intervention- or even to debate it, as the British Parliament has done.  It is simply unacceptable to prevail on our men and women in uniform who bravely serve our country while Congress cannot muster the courage to simply do its job, get back to work, and vote.  This is a responsibility that can’t be postponed or put off until after an election, a lame duck session, or the next Congress.  National security threats do not operate according to the Congressional calendar.  The responsibility of duly elected officials is to vote.

The authorization of the use of military force under Article I Section 8 of the Constitution is Congress’ responsibility. It’s Congress that must lay out the principles, the policies, and justification for action and fully debate and inform the public.  To avoid the mistakes of the past, Congress must ensure that in any authorization that three things be clear: we cannot go alone, we will need more than military force, and we must have an exit strategy.  To those ends I have introduced a proposal that would allow for the authorization of force, but contingent on the following principles that the president:

  • Go to the United Nations Security Council, lay out the case for a multinational military intervention against ISIL and seek a resolution supporting military force;
  • Build a broad coalition of allied nations to support and participate in such efforts;
  • Seek partners in the Arab League nations who will actually commit and not just offer support.
  • Present and explain his plan for eliminating the threat posed by ISIL; and
  • Form a clear exit strategy

Former Secretary of State to George H.W. Bush, James Baker, recently said that in order to achieve long-term peace and stability in the region, we must bring together the world powers and the regional interests who have the most to gain and lose to be involved in resolving age-old conflicts.  He is right, that ultimately, any strategy that we have, must also have an eye towards a long-term political solution.  Even as we are hopefully successful in dismantling the threat of ISIL, significant problems will remain in the region – ones that are beyond the capability of U.S. military force alone to solve.  If we are to avoid the tar pit, we must learn from the past, engage our allies, and most importantly not plunge ourselves in without knowing how or if we can get out.

[i] George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (1998), pp. 489-90