Community Forum, Stephen Terry: Citizens deserve answers on Niger deaths

The deaths of four soldiers in Niger, three of whom were Green Berets, not only opened up a new political wound for President Trump, but it also tore off a scab from an unresolved policy battle between the President and the U. S. Senate over sending U. S. troops abroad.
The Defense Department is attempting to respond to Sen. John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on what exactly happened in Niger when on Oct. 4 four soldiers were killed during an ambush. The Defense Department and the F.B.I. are still investigating the matter.
The soldiers were in Africa, supposedly, at the request of the Niger government. There were 12 soldiers on an intelligence mission with four of them in a rear guard position before they were killed.
This incident left many Americans and members of Congress scratching their heads about why the U. S. military was in Niger. Apparently, according to news reports, there are some 800 service men and women in the country working on drones in military intelligence facilities.
Were the troops in Niger prepared for the mission? Was there enough intelligence on the inherent risk, as a segment of the Niger population is an affiliate of Isis? Why did it take the U.S. so long to publicly announce the deaths of the four soldiers? Was the Defense Department transparent with the relevant Senate and House Armed Services Committees?
Who knew? Clearly not many in the Congress, or most Americans, knew of these secret military commitments.
It now turns out that there is a U.S. military presence of some sort in 144 countries around the world.
There are many questions about the troops in these 144 countries around the world that Congress should ask:
How long have they been there?
What are the terms of engagement?
What is the national purpose?
What are the commitments being made by the President for deploying U. S. troops?
Was the Congress specifically informed?
There may be logical answers to all of these questions. Some may be classified, but when American lives are at risk the Congress and the nation deserve answers.
We may get some answers soon as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began hearings Oct. 30 on the President’s war powers.
To gain perspective, turn back the pages of history to the Vietnam War.
U.S. involvement in that long, bloody war had been based on deception (the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution), and many subsequent Johnson Administration lies to the Congress that there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” and the war was being won.
It wasn’t.
The American defeat in Vietnam became painfully clear only when, on April 30, 1975, the last military helicopter flew off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, only hours before the North Vietnamese took control and re-named Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City.
The agony of the Vietnam War is still haunting many families.
In November 1973, after a fierce debate that I witnessed on the Senate floor, a war-weary Congress had thought it was putting controls on an unrestrained Executive Branch by enacting the War Powers Resolution. The key feature of this resolution was to require the President to obtain the support of Congress within 90 days of sending American troops abroad.
In actuality, the Congress has been very weak since World War II in war-making decisions. It has ceded great authority to the Executive Branch and the President.
Vermont’s own Sen. George D. Aiken said more than 45 years ago, that Congress had long ago been classified “4-F” for abandoning its war-making role. He said it started in 1941 when Congress approved the Lend-Lease Act authorizing U.S. military assistance to Great Britain.
Yet, the War Powers Resolution, which was enacted by Congress over President Nixon’s veto, was clearly not enough to curb excessive Presidential power in war making.
While Aiken voted for the War Powers Resolution, and voted to override Nixon’s veto, he was fearful that it would be useless if there would be a nuclear war.
Aiken wrote in November 1973 that “no war fought with atomic weapons would last more than 60 days for within a few days half of the people of America, and nearly as many people of Russia, our most likely opponent, would have been killed.”
If Aiken were alive today he would substitute North Korea for Russia.
Aiken was always distrustful of over-reaching Presidential power in making war. He would no doubt be highly alarmed that the current holder of that office could trip America into a nuclear war because of arrogance fed by ignorance and hubris.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker declared recently that President Trump was putting America “on the path to World War III.” Do the American people have a means to prevent a Third World War? Apparently, there is no real way to stop excessive Presidential power other than a change of government. For that, we will have to wait until 2020.
What a terrifying thought.
Stephen C. Terry of Middlebury was legislative assistant for U.S. Sen. George D. Aiken from 1969 to 1975. He is working on a book about Aiken and his impact on U. S. foreign policy from 1954 to1974. Terry is also an occasional newspaper contributor and a political analyst for WCAX-TV and radio station WDEV.

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