Veterans groups on the left and right find common cause
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.”
‘‘ [W]HEN WE STARTED TALKING ABOUT FOREIGN POLICY, IT WAS CLEAR THERE WERE SOME AREAS OF ALIGNMENT ESPECIALLY ON WAR POWERS.
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.