Vet­er­ans groups on the left and right find com­mon cause

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Insight - BY JEN­NIFER STEINHAUER New York Times

The re­la­tion­ship be­gan in the most Wash­ing­ton way ever: on the set of C-Span.

Will Fis­cher, then di­rec­tor of govern­ment re­la­tions for VoteVets, the lib­eral po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee, was tapped to face off with Dan Cald­well, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the con­ser­va­tive Con­cerned Vet­er­ans for Amer­ica. It was a con­tin­u­a­tion of a years­long and con­tentious di­a­logue over vet­er­ans is­sues, in­clud­ing dis­putes over health care, which can­di­dates care more about mat­ters im­por­tant to vet­er­ans, as well as their du­el­ing views on the ne­far­i­ous na­ture of the Repub­li­can or Demo­cratic par­ties.

But then the two found an unan­tic­i­pated pol­icy bridge, and have now gone on to work to­gether to per­suade Congress to fi­nally re­voke au­tho­riza­tions of mil­i­tary force passed af­ter Sept. 11, 2001, which both be­lieve have been bent and stretched to jus­tify wars far be­yond Congress’ in­ten­tions nearly two decades ago.

“I hon­estly did go into the in­ter­view ex­pect­ing a com­bat­ive con­ver­sa­tion,” Cald­well said, “but when we started talk­ing about for­eign pol­icy, it was clear there were some ar­eas of align­ment, es­pe­cially on war pow­ers. The wheels started turn­ing in my head, and we came to­gether and de­cided to pur­sue some of these shared goals.”

Both groups – who are wolf to the other’s sheep­dog on nearly ev­ery other pol­icy is­sue – in­tend to share a leg­isla­tive agenda this year that presses for changes to war au­tho­riza­tion mea­sures and an end to the United States’ pres­ence in Afghanistan. They plan to more strongly tie their sub­stan­tial fi­nan­cial and news me­dia sup­port in 2020 to can­di­dates’ views on for­eign pol­icy.

“There are only two vets groups in Amer­ica that spend money on poli­cies like this,” said Jon Soltz, chair­man of VoteVets. “We bring a real cin­der block to this house that is go­ing to be built around this is­sue.”

Congress has been de­bat­ing how to deal with its role in the use of mil­i­tary force for nearly a decade. Law­mak­ers voted in 2001 to au­tho­rize force in re­sponse to the Sept. 11 at­tacks and, in 2002, for the in­va­sion of Iraq. But un­der three pres­i­dents, the ex­ec­u­tive branch in­creas­ingly stretched that au­thor­ity to jus­tify com­bat ac­tion far from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Many law­mak­ers be­lieve that both au­tho­riza­tions are be­ing ex­tended well be­yond their in­tent and now usurp the role of Congress un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion to de­cide when the coun­try will go to war. Yet both po­lit­i­cal par­ties have been un­able to agree on how much to cur­tail the ex­ec­u­tive branch and have been re­luc­tant to move for­ward to end the agree­ments.

Law­mak­ers in each party have al­ready demon­strated an in­creas­ing de­sire to curb Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sions in Syria, Ye­men and be­yond. The large in­crease of vet­er­ans in the House, matched with the fire­power be­hind these two or­ga­ni­za­tions on both ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, means that law­mak­ers who have long pushed for changes to the au­tho­riza­tions be­lieve their time has come.

“I think with the Democrats now in con­trol of the House it is much more likely we will have fo­cused at­ten­tion on pulling con­gres­sional pow­ers away from the White House into the Congress,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who re­peat­edly pushed to re­peal and re­place the Sept. 11 au­tho­riza­tion.

He has writ­ten a pro­posal with Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., that would re­voke a dif­fer­ent, lin­ger­ing war au­tho­riza­tion from the 1991 Per­sian Gulf War along with the 2002 Iraq War law. “We see an in­creas­ing un­easi­ness with the way a pres­i­dent thinks he can go to war without us,” he said.

Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., a mod­er­ate who served in the Army in Afghanistan, is al­ready a cospon­sor of a long-stand­ing mea­sure writ­ten by Rep. Bar­bara Lee, D-Calif., that would re­peal the cur­rent au­tho­riza­tion for Iraq.

“We’ve given pres­i­dents of both par­ties too much au­thor­ity to go any­where at any time without over­sight or ap­proval,” Rose said. “I refuse to com­mit an­other gen­er­a­tion’s worth of blood and trea­sure to in­tractable con­flicts for which we have nei­ther a clear na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­est nor a vi­able exit strat­egy.”

Sev­eral other vet­er­ans said they also sup­ported re­vis­it­ing the is­sue.

Rep. Daniel Cren­shaw, RTexas, said that Congress should be re­cep­tive to mod­i­fy­ing such mea­sures. “We should al­ways be open to up­dat­ing AUMFs,” he said, us­ing the ab­bre­vi­a­tion for the au­tho­riza­tion for the use of mil­i­tary force. “The ques­tion will be: What is the best way to do that without dis­rupt­ing the on­go­ing op­er­a­tions around the globe that serve our na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­est?”

The sub­jects of war pow­ers and con­gres­sional au­thor­ity have long made strange bed­fel­lows. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is now aligned with Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to wind down the 17-year mil­i­tary cam­paign in Afghanistan. “I have talked to the pres­i­dent about 20 times about this,” Paul said, not­ing that Trump has been pub­licly op­posed to for­ever wars. “Part of the prob­lem is the peo­ple around him.”

But these is­sues have rarely had the clout of po­lit­i­cal groups like VoteVets – which played an in­stru­men­tal role in push­ing law­mak­ers to turn on the war in Iraq and spent $17 mil­lion on can­di­dates in the last elec­tion cy­cle – and the Con­cerned Vet­er­ans for Amer­ica, which has the ear of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion on vet­eran af­fairs and sub­stan­tial back­ing by the bil­lion­aire Koch brothers, who have given mil­lions to po­lit­i­cal races and pol­icy fights.

“The Koch net­work has in­vested sub­stan­tially in ad­vanc­ing their for­eign pol­icy vi­sion over the past few years,” Cald­well said, adding of his group: “When we en­gage on an is­sue, we do it in a way where we can make the most im­pact. Also, one thing we will be weigh­ing more heav­ily when con­sid­er­ing sup­port­ing can­di­dates is their align­ment with us on for­eign pol­icy.”

Rep. Eliot En­gel, D-N.Y., chair­man of the House Com­mit­tee on For­eign Af­fairs, has been slowly seek­ing to build con­sen­sus among Democrats around the con­tentious is­sue by push­ing mea­sures like the one to end U.S. mil­i­tary aid to Saudi Ara­bia.

“Congress has con­sti­tu­tional au­thor­ity over war pow­ers, but for too long, we’ve ceded that re­spon­si­bil­ity to the ex­ec­u­tive branch,” he said. “I’m work­ing to re­claim our pre­rog­a­tives and in­crease trans­parency about Amer­i­can mil­i­tary in­volvement.”


Dan Cald­well


Dan Cald­well of Con­cerned Vet­er­ans for Amer­ica, left, and Jon Soltz of VoteVets share a leg­isla­tive agenda that presses for changes to war au­tho­riza­tion mea­sures and an end to the United States’ pres­ence in Afghanistan.

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