Lindsey Graham, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and perpetual enthusiast of military intervention, only recently learned the United States has roughly 800 soldiers on the ground in Niger, where four of them were ambushed and killed earlier this month.
Graham (R-S.C.) admitted as much in an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, telling host Chuck Todd he "didn't know there was [sic] a thousand troops in Niger" before news of the four deaths broke.
In Graham's undeserved defense, he's not the only one who had no idea the United States has a significant military presence in Niger—not to mention elsewhere on the African continent. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also copped to ignorance, as did the many confused Americans who turned to Google to pose the suddenly pressing question, "Why are we in Niger?"
Our national knowledge gap, forced on us by tragedy, should occasion a clear-eyed assessment of whether it is necessary, prudent, or even constitutional to maintain a substantial U.S. military presence in about 20 African nations. Instead, many in Washington have seized on Americans' horror at what happened in Niger as an excuse to push for more unexamined, unaccountable, and unneeded military intervention. Graham himself is chief among them.
In the NBC interview, he pivoted from arguing for congressional abdication of its war-making authority to the declaration of his own ignorance and right back again. "The military determines who the threats are, they come up with the engagement policy, and if we [in Congress] don't like what the military does, we can defund the operation," he told Todd. In the very next sentence he admitted he is inexcusably uninformed about "what the military does." A little more information from the Pentagon, Graham concluded, is all that is needed to make, as he put it, "an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time or geography" totally A-OK.
This reckless, forever-war approach is utterly incompatible with responsible, effective foreign policy. It ignores all strategic questions about whether it is "incumbent upon the United States to police vast swaths of the planet in perpetuity." And, if not, why our government has committed us to exactly that.
As this tragedy in Niger has too vividly demonstrated, Graham's approach risks American lives in conflicts in so many different places around the globe that politicians can't even be bothered to notice. This approach is also incompatible with the Constitution's explicit delegation of the power to "declare war" to Congress, a phrasing James Madison noted was intended to communicate that though the president is allowed "the power to repel sudden attacks" on U.S. soil, the executive branch cannot "commence war" on its own.
This means Graham was flat wrong when he suggested Congress should default to foreign policy passivity unless things go so awry it must exert a fiscal veto. On the contrary, it is Congress' responsibility to "determine who the threats are" and "come up with the engagement policy."
That has not happened in Niger or any of the other African countries where our military leaders have put troops in harm's way.
American soldiers have been in Niger since 2005, their presence escalating through three presidential administrations representing both major parties. Their concern is now predominantly with extremists crossing the border from Libya, a country still in chaos following yet another unauthorized U.S. intervention in Africa. The Pentagon defends this murky status quo, insisting "America is not at war in Africa." This month's tragedy shows that claim to be disingenuous at best.
After the Senate Armed Services Committee met with Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Friday, Graham told reporters Mattis shares his interest in expansion, not reconsideration, of U.S. military intervention in Africa. "The war is morphing," Graham said. "You're going to see more actions in Africa, not less; you're going to see more aggression by the United States."
Graham's forecast is troubling. Escalating the present American military action in Niger and surrounding nations will place more Americans in danger and further undermine the constitutional balance of power while making no gains for U.S. defense. Mattis would do well to instead heed the advice of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and other senators pushing for "a public discussion about the current extent of our military operations around the world."
Now is the time to set defense priorities, to end Washington's addiction to sending U.S. troops to solve any and every international problem, regardless of whether American national security is directly at stake—or whether outside intervention is the best tool for the job. When U.S. vital interests aren't in peril, nations like Niger must assume responsibility for their own affairs.
This month's tragedy should be the overdue impetus to get the U.S. military out of Africa, and to reassess the value of our military commitments around the world.