Overcoming Foreign-Policy Disunity

November 20, 2012 Topic: CongressDomestic PoliticsPolitics Region: United States

Overcoming Foreign-Policy Disunity

A bipartisan discussion about America in the world could help smooth differences in other areas.

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.

Over the course of the next four years, I believe such outreach would yield significant dividends for both parties and could establish a more unified long-term national-security strategy. The American public would benefit from seeing the president and Congressional Republicans work together on foreign policy. And understandings developed in this area might even elevate debate and soften partisan wrangling over domestic issues.

I remain optimistic about our future and believe that both international divisions and external threats can be overcome. The United States will continue to be at the forefront of global endeavors seeking peace, freedom and rising standards of living.

Richard G. Lugar is ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and coauthor of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.