I tend to resist hyperbolic assessments of the condition of American society. But when I reflect on what is different now from when I entered politics, it is clear that partisan divisions are much sharper than they were in past decades.
These divisions routinely affect U.S. foreign policy in ways that they rarely did in years past. It was never strictly the case that "politics stopped at the water's edge." During the Cold War and the Vietnam War, for example, it was common for some candidates to be attacked as being soft on Communism and others to be attacked as warmongers. But there almost always was an undercurrent of bipartisanship and communication between party leaders on national security issues that enabled action when it was needed.
That is not the case today. In recent years, the U.S. Congress has been unable to act decisively on foreign policy, or, in many cases, even debate international issues. Faced with reflexive partisan roadblocks and the growing number of unresolvable hot button issues that get attached to foreign policy bills, Congress has retreated from legislation dealing with foreign policy.
Consider that since the beginning of 2007—roughly the last six years—only two foreign-policy initiatives have come to the Senate floor in an amendable format. These were the New START Treaty in December 2010 and the reauthorization of America's global efforts to combat AIDS and other communicable diseases in 2008. We have had some votes on foreign-policy nominations; a few smaller measures have passed without a floor vote; and some stray foreign-policy questions have reared their heads on omnibus appropriations bills. But only in these two occasions, could the Senate be characterized as publicly working through a foreign-policy issue on the Senate floor. It is extraordinary to think that foreign policy gets only one turn every three years on the Senate Floor.
In fact, a comprehensive Foreign Affairs Authorization Bill—the flagship legislation that should be passed annually as the partner to the Defense Authorization bill—has not been passed and signed into law since 1985. As Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, in 2003 and again in 2005, I worked to secure unanimous passage of the Foreign Affairs Authorization Bill in Committee, only to have the bill pulled from the Senate floor on both occasions due to controversies.
Even in crises, Congress has been unable to muster a consensus for legislative action. In 2002, Congress authorized prospectively the military intervention in Iraq that occurred the following year. But Congress was unable to coalesce behind a unified perspective as the war evolved. In 2011, as President Obama committed the United States to hostilities in Libya without a Congressional vote, Congress was unable to effectively defend its prerogatives or even decide on the terms of a meaningful debate.
Unfortunately, many members of Congress have reacted to this situation by emphasizing areas of disagreement rather than legislative achievement. Congress's foreign-policy role increasingly has centered on reactive opposition to the Executive Branch.
We have seen this as treaty ratification during the Obama Administration has come to a virtual standstill. Many of you are aware of the travails facing higher-profile treaties such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But in this Congress, even bilateral tax treaties with friendly countries such as Hungary, Luxembourg, and Switzerland have been held up. In past years, tax treaties—which almost always have demonstrable benefits for U.S. jobs and businesses—have been passed without any controversy.
Increasingly, Congressional foreign-policy involvement is starting and stopping with debate on immediate foreign-policy controversies that are reflected in the 24-hour news cycle. Ironically, even as Congress is becoming more willing to politicize foreign policy, interest in international affairs among members continues to be spotty. Congress is largely failing to pursue systematic reviews of broader strategic questions in foreign policy. The less meaningful debate we have on genuine foreign-policy issues, the easier it is for members of Congress and our whole political class to dismiss foreign policy as a secondary issue that can be gamed for partisan advantage.
Understandably, few members have extensive experience with foreign-policy issues. Even fewer would list foreign-policy concerns among their primary motivations for running for office. Many will see little connection between foreign policy and their own electoral success. But foreign-policy debates in Congress too often are mired in simplistic and impressionistic narratives that have little bearing on the problems that are most likely to confront us.
Some will take the attitude that national-security policy is the prerogative of the president, and given Congress' intensifying partisanship it makes sense for the Executive Branch to go its own way, reaching out to Congress only when it is absolutely necessary. But this would be an extremely dangerous course for our country that would reduce prospects for dealing with the challenges that I have cited.
Unfortunately, neither the George W. Bush White House nor the Obama White House showed much interest in a foreign-policy partnership with Congress. This contrasts with the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations, all of which placed a much higher value on Congressional participation in foreign policy.
Although both Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton have continued to be personally responsive to their former colleagues, the Obama Administration as a whole has frequently resisted Congressional involvement in major foreign-policy decisions and issues. On several key questions, in fact, the Administration has aggressively challenged Congress's foreign-policy powers. Most notably, the president refused to meaningfully engage Congress on U.S. intervention in Libya in the Spring of 2011. He declined to seek Congressional authorization for military action, even though under almost any interpretation of laws and precedents, he should have done so. Less well known is the Obama Administration's revision of practices related to Congress's approval of U.S. arms sales that have been in place since the early Reagan Administration. If these revisions stand, they are likely to cause intense controversy in the coming years that will unnecessarily divide the legislative and executive branches on a key tool of U.S. global influence.
In my view, President Obama and Congress must attempt to reestablish a closer working relationship on national security. This is not just a matter of process. It is necessary not only to achieve important national goals, but also to undergird national unity in the event of severe crises, such as war with Iran or another catastrophic terrorist attack.
This cooperation depends both on congressional leaders who are willing to set aside partisan advantage and on administration officials who understand that the benefits of having the support of members of Congress is worth the effort and political capital it takes to secure that support.
It is not necessary for leaders with divergent philosophies to always be nice to one another. But it is essential that in times of crisis, they are able to interact without suspicion. Currently, that is not happening. To state it another way, what legislators of the opposite party will be capable of being a true partner to the president after the next 9/11? And will the president be capable of calling leaders of the opposite party to the Oval Office to make them full partners in a foreign-policy strategy?
Regrettably, things may get worse before they get better. Current controversies threaten to deepen foreign policy divisions within our government. I understand the views of those concerned with the Benghazi attack and presentations made by the administration in its aftermath. They are right to ask questions and probe more deeply into this. I also understand the point of view of the president and his consideration of Ambassador Rice for a higher-ranking post. Unfortunately, both sides seem willing—even eager—to precipitate a public fight at the very time when the end of the election could offer a respite necessary to put U.S. foreign policy on a more cooperative footing. All parties should recognize the gravity of the coming year when decisions on Iran, Syria, and other hotspots are likely.
I would hope that in the coming weeks, the president would call national-security leaders in Congress to the White House for meaningful talks on the direction of U.S. foreign policy. These meetings should not be mere photo-ops or once-around-the-table affairs. Instead, they should be private, informal, and unhurried to allow for a real exchange of views. They also should be regularized to improve communications and build trust. This is not something that the president can delegate. He should commit himself to the hours necessary for this process to succeed.