The Skeptics

535 Secretaries of State

Congress, especially the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, has become hyperactive on the foreign-policy front in recent weeks. In rapid succession, the House passed two important amendments to the defense-authorization bill, both of which have the potential to cause major complications for U.S. diplomacy in East Asia. The latest measure would require the sale of sixty-six F-16 C/D model fighters to Taiwan, which drew an immediate, angry response from Beijing. The earlier amendment would press the Defense Department to redeploy nuclear weapons to South Korea. President George H. W. Bush removed such weapons at the beginning the 1990s.

In addition to those two amendments, resolutions are kicking about in both chambers of Congress that seek to dictate to the Obama administration, in pretentious detail, the policy it ought to pursue toward Iran. Among other things, those resolutions try to prevent the administration from even considering containment and deterrence as a strategy for dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The only options acceptable to hawkish advocates appear to be 1) accepting Iran’s abject surrender on every issue in dispute, or 2) a strategy of escalating coercion, up to and including the use of preemptive military force.

It would be an understatement to say that such attempts at congressional direction of foreign policy on highly sensitive matters are most unhelpful. Fortunately, the amendments to the defense-authorization bill may not pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. And the Iran resolutions, despite their rhetorical swagger, are not binding on the executive branch.

But the intent behind those measures is worrisome. And there is more than a little irony involved. Conservatives, especially conservative Republicans, are the most vocal supporters of all three items. Yet, prominent conservatives over the decades, including Ronald Reagan and John McCain, have repeatedly invoked the cliché that the United States cannot afford to have “535 secretaries of state.” In other words, Congress must defer to the president in the arena of foreign affairs. That deference, they argue further, is what the Constitution intends.

Unfortunately, conservatives have been most adamant about such deference when it involved chief executives who launched or sought to maintain presidential wars. The view that Congress should tamely acquiesce in such conflicts is a perversion of the Constitution. Both the language of the document and the history of the revolutionary and early national periods in U.S. history make it clear that the founders intended Congress, not the president, to determine whether the republic should go to war.

Conversely, the founders did intend the president, rather than Congress, to manage the day-to-day foreign policy of the United States. We now, quite literally, have the opposite of what they and the Constitution envisioned. Congress has totally abdicated its responsibilities regarding the war power, while it increasingly tries to micromanage key features of the nation’s diplomacy.

That is a profoundly unhealthy situation. Policies toward Iran, North Korea and Taiwan are extremely sensitive matters, and it is unwise of Congress to try to force the president into adopting initiatives that could foment or worsen crises. Such posturing may score political points—or, as in the case of pressure for the sale of advanced-model F-16s, bring lucrative contracts to firms in key states and congressional districts—but it does not serve the national interest.