Foreign Policy?Blame Both Congress and the White House
By Stanley R. Sloan
Paris, Friday, January 21, 2000
WASHINGTON - A few months ago, President Jacques Chirac of France complained that the U.S. Congress "all too often succumbs to the temptations of unilateralism and isolationism." The observation was not far off the mark.
A report based on more than a year's discussions among an influential bipartisan group of senior congressional staff, administration officials and experts convened by the Georgetown University Institute for the Study of Diplomacy criticizes both Congress and the administration for failing to provide the quality of leadership and statesmanship that the United States will need to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
The report, released this Thursday, finds the Clinton administration guilty of paying inadequate attention to the leadership required to bring Congress along on important foreign policy initiatives.
The group's work focused on 10 case studies, ranging from use of force in the Balkans and fast-track trade negotiating authority to funding for the United Nations. The conclusion was that only a few of these cases benefited from effective presidential leadership.
The study does not let Congress off the hook, concluding that bipartisan coalition-building and internationally attuned leadership have been rare.
In the cases of Haiti, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, members of Congress strongly criticized presidential decisions, but Congress avoided either supporting the president's actions or cutting off funds to end the operations.
The congressional capacity to address foreign policy issues and constructively engage in the formulation of foreign policy deteriorated throughout the 1990s. The committees responsible for authorizing spending on foreign affairs and for advising on policy issues have lost much of their stature and influence.
This is not a new phenomenon - its roots go back to the 1970s. But the consequences of this trend for U.S. foreign policy are troubling.
The understanding, expertise and leadership that the authorizing committees could bring to the legislative process have increasingly taken second place to the more narrow fiscal focus of the appropriating committees.
The last decade saw dramatic generational change in America's political leadership. Fifty members of the Senate and 353 members of the House were newly elected in the l990s. This process of change seriously undermined the foreign policy knowledge base and leadership capacity of Congress.
The foreign policy road between Capitol Hill and the White House is always full of potholes. Some of these barriers to cooperation are institutional, based on the tension between presidential and congressional prerogatives in foreign policy. Some are partisan, reflecting the constant struggle between the two parties for votes.
Others are more idiosyncratic, based on the personalities and performance of the president, his top foreign policy lieutenants and congressional leaders.
At the end of the 1990s, there is persistent distrust between the two branches. For most of the last decade, divided government, with the Democrats holding the presidency and the Republicans controlling Congress, has added another competitive feature. And the relationship between the president and the Republican leadership in Congress has been particularly troubled.
For roughly half the membership of Congress, Mr. Clinton is the only president with whom they have worked. Other unique factors that helped produce the troubling tendencies of the 1990s included the end of the Cold War and the U.S. budget deficit early in the 1990s.
In an ideal world, diverse and conflicting views on U.S. interests would be addressed by a legislative branch attuned and attentive to the trade-offs that have to be made to achieve continued peace and prosperity. Congress ought to be an equal partner with the executive, tempering decisions and providing early advice in times of crisis.
The trends documented in this study toward reduced focus on and constrained resources for foreign policy will not necessarily continue. With a decade of experience in coping with challenges in the post-Cold War world, a public that is for the most part ready to support U.S. international involvement, the promise of budget surpluses and a new president and Congress to be elected this year, more reassuring trends could emerge.
That requires, however, that leaders in both branches and parties seek to remedy problems that have plagued the relationship during the past decade. More and better presidential leadership must be matched by a higher quality of statesmanship among congressional leaders.
The writer is a former senior specialist in international security policy at the U.S. Congressional Research Service. He is the principal drafter of the Georgetown University study "The Foreign Policy Struggle - Congress and the President in the Nineties and Beyond."
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