April 12, 2007

April 12, 2007 | Commentary on

Abjectdiplomacy

Recess is travel time in Washington, and Congressional Democrats have wasted no time launching their own new adventures. After all, they seem to be thinking, how hard can foreign policy be? The world is full of nice folks who want to talk to you if you belong to the party that is in opposition to the Bush administration. Unfortunately, the old adage about Washington having potentially 535 secretaries of state, in addition to the one in Foggy Bottom, seems to be proving all too true with the 110th Congress.

What is the problem with having members of Congress express their own views on foreign affairs? The problem is that the result is likely to be massive confusion if this trend persists. As a consequence the White House is entirely right to denounce these efforts. Foreign policy should stop at the water's edge, and those who want to change the course of the nation's foreign policy have the opportunity to run for president, as indeed a number of Democrats are doing.

This is not to say that there is no role for Congress in this field, but through its constitutional powers this is mainly an oversight function, the right to advice and consent on foreign treaties in the case of the Senate as well as the very significant power of appropriation of funding. It is clearly also necessary for the White House to persuade Congress to support extended foreign military deployments, or run the risk of feeling the full weight of the political system's checks and balances being brought to bear.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Syrian venture has by now been well digested by the media. Mrs. Pelosi had been warned by the White House against traveling to Damascus, which the White House has been working to isolate internationally for its sponsorship of terrorism and interference in Iraq. Not only did she go anyway, along with Reps. Tom Lantos, Henry Waxman and others, causing the impression that a change was taking place in U.S. foreign policy, but she also engaged in a bit of shuttle diplomacy bringing a mangled message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whom the delegation had previously seen. In a different but simultaneous bit of foreign venturesomeness, Rep. Steny Hoyer went to Egypt where he managed to run into representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical group whom Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has refused to meet. 

In addition, the White House and Congress are locked in a fierce rhetorical battle over the Iraq war supplemental, a stand-off that is now in its 65th day and counting. Presidential objections to the bill focus on the deadline set therein for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq of 2008. The president has rightly threatened a veto of the funding for the troops, not only for good national-security reasons, but also because an important constitutional principle is at stake here.

It should be acknowledged that Democrats are not the only ones to engage in foreign policy. In the 1990s, then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole played a key role in reversing the Clinton administration's policy on Bosnia, forcing the White House to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia, which left the country in its fight for independence more or less defenseless in the face of Serbia's considerable military might. And as noted by my colleague Tod Lindberg in this space yesterday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took it upon himself to get mixed up in Sino-American relations, when he threw his full support behind Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to allow him a visit the United States against State Department inclinations. 

The case becomes even more problematic, though, when congressional members take it upon themselves to act as diplomats and military commanders. Nor are American presidents uniquely sensitive to this issue. When French presidential contender Nicolas Sarkozy came to Washington last year and gave a hugely pro-American speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center, he was fiercely denounced by President Jacques Chirac, who not only did not agree, but also undoubtedly felt his jealously guarded presidential turf being invaded.

Particularly at a time of war, such as today, members of Congress should be especially careful about falling for the temptation to forge their own foreign policy. Were they to claim the White House in 2008, they would have time enough to do that. It is a right, though, that has to be conferred by the American people first.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times