Left-Out Legislature

Left-Out Legislature

Mini Teaser: The new Democratic Congress will find it has only a limited role to play in foreign policy.

by Author(s): Robert J. Lieber

FOR THE first time since 1994, the Democrats control both houses of Congress. Expectations run high among members of the new majority as well as their supporters and commentators at home and abroad. Their hopes for fundamental change are fed not only by genuine policy agendas, but also by political rancor and a partisan polarization more pronounced than at the height of the Vietnam War. Yet the role of Congress in foreign policy remains relatively limited, and aspirations for fundamental change greatly exceed what political, institutional and geopolitical realities will allow.

In many quarters a visceral antipathy toward President Bush and Vice President Cheney has prevailed. This finds expression in a certain narrative about foreign policy. Versions of this narrative differ, but they tend to share common elements.

The Cold War and the decade that followed it are depicted as an era when the United States pursued policies of multilateralism, collaboration with allies and respect for international law and institutions. America was widely admired or at least respected abroad until the presidency of George W. Bush. The former Texas governor took office with a swagger, a shoot-from-the-hip mentality and an aggressive unilateralist approach to foreign policy. America discarded its past habits of restraint, commitment to common institutions and deference to international partners' views. The 9/11 attacks gave full rein to these belligerent instincts and provided a pretext for ignoring the United Nations, violating international law and launching an aggressive war in defiance of wise voices calling for restraint.

This narrative implies guidelines for foreign policy, not only in Iraq but more broadly, that emphasize bipartisanship, multilateralism, re-engagement with international institutions and the UN, and aversion to pre-emption, thus regaining the international community's respect.

To be sure, discontent over Iraq had much to do with the Democratic victory in the November 2006 elections. But the above narrative is flawed, and the latitude for Congress to change foreign policy is constrained. It may surprise internationalist and realist critics, but the future demands something like the current administration's strategies.

Myths about Past Policy

HISTORICALLY, THE United States has been far more unilateral and assertive than commonly assumed, as Robert Kagan recently reminded us in reference to the early years of the republic and the 19th century. Hemispheric neighbors and Europe saw America as aggressive, expansionist and possessed of an unwelcome liberal, commercial and revolutionary ideology.[1]Even post-World War II America wasn't the place for the consistent alliance cooperation some make it out to be. Throughout the Cold War, there were numerous and often acrimonious disputes with allies and adversaries over security, economic, political and even cultural issues. German rearmament, the Suez crisis, the Vietnam War, Middle East policies, the Arab oil embargo following the October 1973 Yom Kippur War and the decision to station intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe in the early 1980s are just a few examples of these quarrels.

Past American policy was by no means consistently multilateral. In 1950 President Truman dispatched American forces to Korea prior to un authorization; in 1962 President Kennedy appeared ready to use force against Soviet missiles in Cuba; four American presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford) sent troops to Indochina; Reagan employed U.S. military power to oust a junta in Grenada and George H. W. Bush overthrew a dictator in Panama. At the end of the Cold War, the elder President Bush pursued German unity over the objections of President Mitterrand of France and Prime Minister Thatcher of Britain. And in another conspicuous case, the Clinton Administration's 1999 attack on Serbia to halt murder and ethnic cleansing, the United States and NATO went ahead without UN Security Council authorization. Russia would have vetoed any resolution authorizing the action.

Nor has American policy been uniformly unilateralist since 9/11. In fact, the United States has continued to play an active role in institutions such as the World Trade Organization, NATO, the IMF, the World Bank and the UN Security Council. It has also pursued multilateral initiatives, including an expanded foreign aid program and an extensive initiative to combat HIV/AIDS. Indeed, the complaint about unilateralism is as much about policy as process. If the administration adopted policies its critics liked, they would be less fastidious about multilateral means.

Anti-Americanism has precedents too. While the phenomenon has spread and intensified in recent years, it is worth recalling that it was sometimes widespread and occasionally violent during the Cold War ("Yankee Go Home" as a pervasive leftist slogan in Europe during the early years of the Cold War, riots during Richard Nixon's vice presidential visit to Latin America in the 1950s, massive anti-Vietnam War and anti-Euromissile demonstrations in the late 1960s and early 1980s). One can find its antecedents in the 18th century, when antipathy was widespread on the royalist and pre-revolutionary right.[2]

Exaggerated Expectations about Congress and Foreign Policy

CONGRESS DOES play a constitutional role in foreign policy, and Democratic control of the House and Senate will affect a number of areas. The most visible of these will likely be the oversight function, which even some Republican legislators concede has been underutilized in recent years. Congress oversees executive agencies to be sure they follow the law and use public monies appropriately. Legislative investigations can be effective tools in discovering and publicizing abuses of the public trust, as well as in holding policymakers to account. The subpoena power can be a formidable weapon in certain circumstances. In addition, the Senate is responsible for "Advice and Consent" on treaties and on appointments to the rank of ambassador. John Bolton's resignation, in the face of opposition to his formal confirmation as UN ambassador, is a case in point.

Congress also wields the power of the purse, and the ultimate sanction in foreign policy is to reduce or cut off funds. During the early Vietnam era, Congress hesitated to exercise this power, but in June 1973 it passed the Case-Church Amendment halting military activity in Indochina-by a veto-proof majority. The following year, after large Democratic gains in the post-Watergate elections, Congress halted all military funding for the South Vietnamese. The two actions helped along South Vietnam's 1975 defeat.

Legislative powers are consequential, but they are not unlimited. Equally important, Democratic majorities are small, and President Bush retains the ability to veto legislation. Because gerrymandering and political polarization have significantly reduced the number of moderates in both parties, there are fewer Republican representatives and senators willing to vote with the Democratic majority. To the contrary there are 44 moderate Democratic "blue dogs" in the House, many from traditionally Republican districts, who would be reluctant to support activist-left initiatives. The Senate balance is even more tenuous, and a defection by Joseph Lieberman would deny the Democrats a working majority.

Another constraint on legislative power in foreign policy has been evident in the tug of war over the War Powers Resolution of 1973, passed over Nixon's veto. The resolution sought to restrain presidential authority to wage war, but Democratic and Republican presidents have resisted it on the grounds it infringes on their constitutional authority. The courts have been reluctant to intervene, and the resolution has had marginal effect.

Congress's structure also limits its ability to shape foreign policy. Committee and subcommittee chairs jealously oppose measures that would reduce their numbers and areas of overlapping authority; the 9/11 Commission complained that "congressional oversight for intelligence-and counter-terrorism-is now dysfunctional." In addition, while Democratic voters and elected officials have been broadly critical of the Bush Administration's conduct in Iraq, lawmakers are by no means united behind an alternative course of action. Furthermore, all but the most vocal anti-war activists have been unwilling to cut off military funding. A majority of Democrats want to see the U.S. troop commitment reduced, but sharp differences exist between the left, the more cautious mainstream and the "blue dogs."

Foreign Policy Beyond Bush

IN INVADING Iraq, President Bush "rolled the iron dice." At the time, the case for military action attracted support from more than 70 percent of the American public and majorities in both houses of Congress. However, the subsequent years of bloody insurgency and sectarian violence leave the outcome uncertain. Whatever the ultimate result there has been much to criticize, especially following the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. Yet the understandable focus on Bush has obscured the deeper international and strategic perils America faces. Whether Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney or some as-yet-unheralded candidate takes the next oath of office, he or she will face a foreign policy agenda for which Bush-centric critiques and slogans will be of limited value.

External threats include related but distinct components, the most conspicuous element of which is Islamist terrorism. In the words of the 9/11 Commission, this is not something Americans can "bargain or negotiate" with. For the foreseeable future, America will fight an intransigent ideology wedded to violence and apocalyptic nihilism. Related to this is the problem of nuclear proliferation and the potential use of wmd by states and terrorist groups. Osama bin Laden, whose fatwas and declarations of war against America date back to 1996 and 1998-i.e., pre-Bush and pre-Iraq War-has called it a sacred duty to acquire nuclear weapons and added that Al-Qaeda would be justified in killing four million Americans, half of them children.

Essay Types: Essay