When President Obama asked Congress to approve his plan for missile strikes in Syria last summer, it opened an immediate debate — not just on US policy toward Syria, but on Congress’s appropriate role in foreign affairs. When can a president act alone, and when must he turn to Congress for a declaration of war or approval for military action?
That debate took on the same dimensions as previous clashes between presidents and Congress during the wars in Vietnam and Iraq: Most of the talk focused on Congress as a check and balance, a means to approve the president’s actions through floor votes or review them through committee hearings. The entire exercise casts senators in a reactive role: When should they step in to raise questions or demand input?
This debate largely ignores a potentially greater and more fruitful role for senators — as instigators of action. When a president fails to respond adequately to a crisis, members of Congress can play powerful roles in drawing attention to the oversight. While there are many occasions when it’s important that the country speak with one voice — the president’s — on foreign policy, there are others when a lone voice from outside the administration can make a constructive difference.
There’s a striking example from the checkered career of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, in one of his most impressive moments. He spoke up for liberal ideals of a shared humanity during a crisis of tremendous historic importance for Asia, which, while largely forgotten in the United States, is still vividly remembered half a world away in the eighth-most populous country on earth.
In 1971, the Cold War policies of President Richard Nixon crashed up against one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 20th century. On March 25, 1971, the military dictatorship in Pakistan, after being resoundingly defeated in a democratic election, launched a devastating crackdown on its own restive Bengali citizens in what was then East Pakistan and is now the country of Bangladesh.
The CIA and the State Department, in conservative assessments midway through the slaughter, estimated that some 200,000 people had been killed; Bangladesh puts the official death toll at 3 million. Some 10 million Bengali refugees fled to neighboring India, but found themselves dying in droves in miserable conditions in refugee camps.
Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the White House national security adviser, stood staunchly behind Pakistan’s military government. Pakistan was a reliably anti-communist US ally; Nixon had a rare personal affection for its military ruler; and Nixon had an angry, racist contempt for India and Indians, which Kissinger stoked.
Outside the White House, though, many Americans were horrified. Their distress was given voice by the Democrats in Congress, most loudly by Kennedy. “The story of East Bengal will surely be written as one of the greatest nightmares of modern times,” he declared.
Soon after the shooting started, Kennedy began giving furious speeches denouncing Pakistan’s use of US weaponry and urging the Nixon administration to stop the killing. The flight of millions of Bengali refugees gave Kennedy a platform: He was chair of the Senate’s subcommittee on refugees. He ripped into Nixon’s “continued silence, and apparent indifference, over the actions of the American-supplied Pakistan army.” When news broke about two Pakistani freighters loaded with US weapons and spare parts, he accused the White House of “a degree of complicity, which is unconscionable.”
At the White House, Kennedy’s advocacy set off all possible alarms. Kissinger worried about classified State Department papers being leaked to Kennedy. And no critic could have haunted Nixon more than Kennedy, a potential rival for the presidency in 1972.
By August 1971, Kennedy decided he needed to see the situation in South Asia for himself. The White House was scandalized. Kissinger privately warned the president that Kennedy’s trip would be trouble, while Nixon raged, “Now I want the State Department to know that any son of a bitch that does more than give him just the minimum is going to be fired. Is that clear?” He fumed, “Goddamn it, I took trips abroad and nobody ever helped me.”
Kennedy made a grueling tour of impoverished Indian states that were flooded with Bengali refugees. He was stunned at the size of the first refugee camp he visited, near Calcutta, where some 10,000 Bengalis were sheltering. The senator was surrounded by destitute Bengalis, stricken with diarrhea and disease, with meager sanitation and only torn, leaky tents for shelter against the monsoon rains. He plunged into the crowds and ventured into hospitals, seeking to understand what these people were experiencing.
Kennedy got a heartbreaking crash course in emergency relief. Again and again, he saw children, under the age of 5, who would obviously be dead within days or hours. Soon the senator could take one look at moribund children nestled in their mothers’ arms and expertly point out cases of kwashiorkor and marasmus, dire conditions of malnutrition. “There’s one,” he said. “There’s another.”
Kennedy heard harrowing tales of terror and flight, of days or weeks spent trudging on foot to India. Many of the exiles were Bengali professionals, with good English, crushed by their sudden change of fortunes. In the hospitals, he saw children who had been shot through the side, and spoke to a woman who had been shot in the gut.
In an infinity of suffering, the horror finally overwhelmed Kennedy when it came on the smallest scale. One of his traveling companions, MIT professor Nevin Scrimshaw, pointed out one little boy whose eye had clouded over. He would be permanently blind. If the boy had been given a simple injection of vitamin A just a day earlier, the blindness would have been easily preventable. Scrimshaw clinically invited the senator to look closely into the boy’s ruined eye. Kennedy could not. He turned away.
Kennedy, meeting with Indian officials in Delhi, tried to duck press questions, not wanting to criticize Nixon from overseas. But the Indian government, not about to miss this opportunity, nimbly sent out engraved invitations to a Kennedy press conference to the entire Delhi press corps. Prolonged silence is not a natural condition for a US senator, and when asked — as the first question — if Pakistan was committing genocide, he immediately said yes. He pledged to do everything he could to stop US military and economic aid to Pakistan.
Kissinger privately warned Nixon that “when Kennedy comes back, he will blow the roof off.” Sure enough, when the senator returned, haunted by what he had witnessed, he delivered a jeremiad. He had just returned, he told the National Press Club, from “the most appalling tide of human misery in modern times.” He could not forget the face of a child paralyzed from the waist down, a boy quivering in shock from seeing his parents and siblings killed, a girl trying to find something to cover the corpse of her baby brother, who had just died of cholera.
Decrying the “genocidal consequences” of Pakistan’s crackdown, he declared that The United States’s “heavy support of Islamabad is nothing short of complicity in the human and political tragedy of East Bengal.”
What difference did Kennedy’s activism make? After all, he could not reverse Nixon and Kissinger’s policy. The bloodshed only stopped in December 1971, when India and Pakistan fought a brief war that ended with Indian troops securing an independent Bangladesh. But Kennedy’s trip prompted Nixon and Kissinger to increase US aid for the refugees. Congressional pressure, led by Kennedy, made it impossible for Nixon and Kissinger to continue or increase military aid to Pakistan, as they would have liked. Kennedy had congressional investigators discover that the US military was still supplying military equipment to Pakistan, in violation of the White House’s new restrictions.
Just as important, Kennedy became the public face of a more compassionate America. Visiting Delhi, he was welcomed by ebullient crowds of cheering Indians, partially undermining the Soviet Union’s efforts to win hearts and minds in India. As one prominent Indian newspaper wrote, “Like his brothers John and Robert before him, Edward Kennedy now symbolizes the essential liberalism and deep humanity of the American spirit.” In town after town in East Pakistan, Bengalis could list with gratitude the US senators calling for cutting off aid to Pakistan, with particular admiration for Kennedy.
It is natural that presidents are frustrated by showboating senators, who can be irresponsible in their statements. In recent months, Congress has often shown itself just as feckless and partisan in its pronouncements on foreign affairs as in the ongoing squabbling over fiscal policy. But Kennedy’s moral leadership showed South Asians that there was more to a multifaceted American society than its current president.
Kennedy lent his name to a distant and abandoned people, who still venerate him for it. This stands as an unconventional but tangible diplomatic achievement, a principled stance that — while not undoing Nixon and Kissinger’s actions — has helped to redeem America’s reputation in South Asia. When Kennedy died in August 2009, there was an outpouring of grief in Bangladesh — which today has a larger population than Russia or Japan. The newspapers and networks were full of emotional tributes. One writer claimed that Kennedy was just as much Bengali as he was Irish. At Dhaka University, students gathered to mourn their fallen champion under the shade of a banyan tree planted there by Kennedy decades ago.