How Congress needs to oversee Ukraine
For several decades, I was involved directly with — or oversaw from the Hill – a number of major American military and covert actions overseas. I am not going to give specifics of those operations, but I certainly experienced both the business of them being overseen by Congress and the overseeing from the Congressional side. So, with Ukraine in mind, here are a few helpful rules for Capitol Hill staff new to this kind of crucial foreign policy action.
First, try to keep the political gamesmanship down and — for the love of God — don’t leak. No, I am not stupid or naïve enough to think that behavior is going to go away — but there is a worthy, established goal here: Get the Russians out of Ukraine. There may be understandable disagreement over approach, but playing partisan politics and leaking games doesn’t do anyone any good as millions of lives hang in the balance.
Second, do try to listen to EXPERTS. One of the challenges of D.C. in a crisis is the need to comment by everyone, especially in an age where you can follow the moment-by-moment battles on social media. The chattering class is in blood frenzy. However, let me remind you of this very important distinction: It’s Ukrainians’ blood, and chattering class frenzy. Find some people you trust. Ignore the rest. Let me suggest the Congressional Research Service and the Intelligence Community. A few think tanks like the Atlantic Council (my admitted bias) also have real experts who can do more than spell Kyiv.
Third, remember the Intelligence Community can do a good job, but it can also make mistakes. In this case, it did a near perfect job of predicting where the Russians were going and what they are doing. However, also understand, theirs is estimation based on the facts at hand — no crystal ball gazing. And I might add that the closer to the battle, the more the fog of war creeps in, and you can’t tell what the hell is going on.
Moreover, the ability to get inside a dictator’s head is damned hard. These guys don’t have an enormous group of “friends” to tap. They play their cards close and might even not know themselves what they will do. Please do not try to psycho-analyze them from a distance. Pop psychology simply does not work.
Fourth, please do not sit with battle maps and plan strategies yourself. We have plenty of paid experts who do that in both the IC and the military. You are perfectly entitled to ask a lot of questions. Experts need to explain themselves. And these guys are spending the American taxpayers’ money — you have a Constitutional right to oversee how that is done.
Fifth, be careful to who you listen to within and without Ukraine. As the refugee camps fill, there will be people who oppose the current government, and they will seek you out. Each group has an ax to grind, a leader to put forward, and a plan to execute. And they will reach out beyond you — via social media or the immigrant community — to build a U.S. constituency to present their individual group case to you.
The lesson of Iraq and the deceptions of opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi should be a warning about listening to the wrong people and executing based on an outside group’s agenda. America’s agenda must always come first.
Sixth, the question of aid is always a tricky one. You will get into arguments over lethal and non-lethal aid and what defines that. You will be tempted to give the people you support as much and as soon as possible. While this is helpful to the cause, there is a proviso. This weaponry can end up in the hands of others not friendly to us. A Stinger missile is a valuable commodity — and it ending up in the wrong hands could prove disastrous. Try to make sure we track these things as best as possible. And do remember: We may have to buy them back. At that point, you are entering an international seller’s market of high prices. Be prepared to spend on that too — after the conflict.
None of challenges I have mentioned should stop us from supporting Ukraine against an unprovoked Russian war. But I offer them as a reminder that these fast-moving events can have much deeper “eddies and swift flows” than appear on the surface. Avoiding the challenges and pitfalls will help us achieve a true and long-lasting victory.
Ronald Marks is a former CIA officer who served as Senate liaison for five CIA Directors and intelligence counsel to two Senate Majority Leaders. He currently is a non-resident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center at The Atlantic Council and visiting professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.