John Kennedy once said that “it is the president alone who must make the major decisions of our foreign policy,” and I have long thought he was right because, at moments of national peril, our presidents can’t as a practical matter share the conduct of foreign policy with a body like Congress.
FDR couldn’t lead the allies to victory in World War II, nor could JFK resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis, nor could George H.W. Bush build the international coalition to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait if any of them had to first iron out the details of their strategies with an unwieldy group of lawmakers.
The experience of recent years and prospects for the immediate years ahead give me pause, however, and I’ve come to believe that we’d benefit from a more assertive Congress in the conduct of foreign policy.
President Barack Obama defied both Congress and the public in bringing the U.S.-led global nuclear agreement with Iran to fruition. Although clearly among the most important U.S. diplomatic agreements in decades, with huge ramifications for U.S. national security, Obama positioned it not as a treaty, which would have required a two-thirds Senate majority, but as a “nonbinding agreement” that required no congressional assent.
Most Americans opposed the agreement – 57 percent in a Gallup poll in February – as did majorities in the House and Senate. But facing strong pressure from Obama not to undermine what he considered a landmark diplomatic achievement, Senate Democrats denied Republicans the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster and let the Senate consider a Republican resolution to reject the deal.
Now, President-elect Donald Trump is signaling that he also plans a go-it-alone approach, threatening to upend decades of formal agreements or informal understandings related to foreign policy – from our longstanding commitment to NATO to the “one China” policy to which presidents and Congresses have been committed for decades.
More troubling, Trump appears to have a soft spot for Russia’s thuggish President Vladimir Putin, who may just be America’s most dangerous enemy (though he competes for the honor with Iran’s supreme leader). That the incoming president rejects intelligence findings that Russia sought to interfere with the 2016 election to make his victory likelier – indeed, that he largely dismisses intelligence briefings altogether – is downright alarming.
As a general matter, lawmakers can shape foreign policy in numerous ways. Congress approves or bars funds for war-making or other purposes, approves or rejects trade deals, and can enact laws that force presidents to do certain things (e.g., consider human rights as a condition of foreign aid). Congress also can declare war, which it’s done four times (most recently for World War II) and authorize warfighting, as it did in Vietnam and in Iraq for both 1991 and 2003. The Senate, meanwhile, approves top foreign policy nominations as well as treaties, or it rejects them.
Power between the branches ebbs and flows, and one side or the other is routinely unhappy with the state of affairs. Congress felt powerless to challenge FDR once America entered World War II, while Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s felt that Congress was inappropriately interfering as they carried out their respective duties as commander in chief and chief diplomat.
Fortunately, the incoming Congress is sending signals that it’s rethinking the current balance between the branches and planning to tilt it a bit toward itself and away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That lawmakers of both parties are expressing such interest is additionally comforting, as is the fact that they’re already rallying around an approach that would defy Trump’s worst instincts.
Four key Senators – incoming Democratic leader Charles Schumer, Republican Armed Services Chairman John McCain, Armed Services Ranking Democrat Jack Reed and Republican Lindsey Graham – called this week for a bipartisan investigation in response to the CIA’s finding that Russia sought to tip the election to Trump. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Senate Intelligence Committee will investigate and, in a clear jab at Trump, expressed “the highest confidence in the intelligence community.”
Also with Russia in mind, such key Senate Republicans as McCain, Graham and Marco Rubio expressed serious concerns about Trump’s purported pick for secretary of state, ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, due to his close ties to Putin arising from his company’s oil interests in Russia.
Congress is often loud, messy and uncontrollable, but perhaps the founding fathers knew what they were doing when they gave it a sizable role on foreign policy to check presidential power. Here’s to an active, clear-eyed, bipartisan Capitol Hill to rein in some of the incoming president’s more problematic instincts.
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of the new book Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.