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

A number of authors, including prominent realists, have sought to connect terrorism and the war in Iraq with America's support for Israel-or even to elaborate a kind of neoconservative conspiracy theory where the Bush Administration invades Iraq at the behest of pro-Israel policymakers and lobbyists. But this allegation provides neither an accurate analysis of the decision nor a valid understanding of radical Islam.

While solutions to the Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian problems would be highly desirable in themselves, neither would likely produce a significant respite from Islamist terrorism. It is worthwhile to remember that the 9/11 attacks preceded the Iraq invasion, and that terrorism against American installations in the 1990s coincided with the Arab-Israeli peace process at its most fruitful stage. The initial 1993 attack on the World Trade Center; suicide bombings in Bali, Istanbul, Jakarta, Tunisia, Casablanca and Amman; the brutal murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh; murderous reactions to the Danish cartoon incident; an attempt to blow up the Indian parliament; and the destruction of the Shi‘a Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra along with lethal Sunni-Shi‘a violence in Iraq, are evidence of a much more profound and lasting kind of threat.

In essence, the origins of the Bin Laden and jihadi movements have little to do with the Palestinian problem. Bin Laden's 1998 fatwa emphasized the American presence in Saudi Arabia and oppression of Iraq, and his October 2001 video invoked eighty years of Muslim "humiliation" and "degradation" at the hands of the West. Some of the most knowledgeable authorities have cited four centuries of decline in the Arab-Muslim world, and they point to the frustration of people detached from one world yet unable to find acceptance in another. Al-Qaeda itself was formed not in reaction to the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, but to the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seemed to be working. As Olivier Roy has observed, "Al Qaeda's fighters were global jihadists and their favored battlegrounds have been outside the Middle East: Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir. For them, every conflict is simply part of the Western encroachment on the Muslim ummah. . . ." Osama bin Laden did opportunistically add Israel to the list of adversaries, but the Jewish state remained of lesser priority than the United States, the "head of the snake."

Concern is by no means confined to the Bush Administration and its supporters. For example, a survey published in June 2005 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee found that non-proliferation and nuclear security experts assigned an average probability of 29 percent to a nuclear attack somewhere in the world in the next decade, a 40 percent risk of a radiological assault and a 70 percent estimate of some kind of CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear) weapon being used.

In addition, international institutions do not provide the collective security and alternate sources of order that many multilateralists and advocates of limited engagement would like to believe. The UN and its specialized agencies can do many things, but time and again, whether in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur or Iraq, they fail to combat deadly perils in a timely manner. Cynical defiance by North Korea and Iran provides two cases in point.

The United States is left to play a unique role. This does not mean that America can or should always act unilaterally, or that it must serve as the world's policeman. But it does mean that without some kind of active American engagement, few of the most serious global problems, let alone threats to America's own national security and vital interests, can be dealt with.

For the Democratic majority these realities represent a severe external constraint. The difficulties posed by Iraq, Iran, proliferation, jihadists, terrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict and North Korea do not lend themselves to easy or obvious solutions. Nor, for that matter, do a wider range of issues on the foreign policy chessboard such as global warming, energy security, immigration and the balance of trade and payments deficits. In any case, for the time being there is little that the House and Senate can accomplish unless they cooperate with the Bush Administration.

The new Congress will play necessary roles in oversight, investigative hearings, the budget process, confirmation of presidential appointments and legislation. These are significant tasks, but they are more circumscribed than many legislators anticipated, and more limited than much election rhetoric promised. Two years from now, the House and Senate will have voted on funds for the defense budget and the conflict in Iraq, so those issues will belong to Democrats, too. And like the president who takes the oath of office on January 20, 2009, Congress will face recalcitrant foreign policy problems and a daunting agenda. In short, the Democratic-led 110th Congress will find itself greatly constrained in its ability to shape foreign policy.

Robert J. Lieber is a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University. His latest book is The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century(New York: Cambridge University Press, revised edition, 2007).

[1] Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006), pp. 3-4.

[2] Philippe Roger, The American Enemy: A Story of French Anti-Americanism(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Essay Types: Essay