Daniel W. Drezner

I’m not sure Congress has thought this through

I’m not sure Congress has thought this through

Appropos of yesterday’s blog post, I see that Matthew Yglesias, Rob Farley, and Kindred Winecoff have all posted thoughts about how to get the U.S. policymakers to better understand the domestic politics of other countries.  Farley makes a particularly trenchant point: 

It’s not quite right to say that academy has figured out how to successfully integrate domestic politics into theories of foreign policy behavior, but we’ve certainly worked on the question. The policy community, however, seems almost utterly uninterested in this literature, to the extent that “well, Ahmadinejad/Putin/Chirac/Chavez/Milosevic/Calderon/Netanyahu/Kim could comply with our demands, but his domestic coalition would almost certainly fracture, and it’s tough to expect leaders to do things that will lead to their downfall” becomes a repetitive refrain.

Winecoff concurs:

Farley is absolutely right that the academic community has made greater strides than the policy community in this way. That doesn’t mean that anything has been conclusively decided; many of the most discussed/cited works are also the most disdained. But where progress has been made it’s been by analyzing how domestic political constraints can cause leaders to act in ways that are, quite frankly, perplexing to outside audiences….

I’ve never felt it was my place to proffer policy advice, even into the seldom-read tubespace that this blog lives in. But the last half-century of American foreign policy reveals, to me, the importance of disaggregating the politics of foreign regimes, of closely examining political structures and constraints in other places, and of crafting nuanced policy that takes those factors into account. This is much harder than blustering, of course, but also much more beneficial.

I’ll have more thoughts on this later, but towards that end, let’s discuss the stupidity of Congress’ latest foray into foreign policy waters:

Several members of Congress have moved to block United States aid to the Lebanese military, saying they are concerned that it may be working with Hezbollah in light of last week’s deadly skirmish between Lebanese and Israeli soldiers on the border between the two countries.

The United States has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Lebanese armed forces in recent years, but members of Congress have often expressed unease that the weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite movement that fought a monthlong war with Israel in the summer of 2006.

Representative Howard L. Berman of California, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, put a hold on $100 million in appropriations to the Lebanese Army on Aug. 2, a day before the border clash, and expressed further concerns on Monday.

“Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hezbollah influence on the L.A.F. — and can assure that the L.A.F. is a responsible actor — I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon,” Mr. Berman said in a statement.

At least three other members of Congress have placed holds on the money or called for the Obama administration to review military aid to Lebanon, including Representative Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York, and two Republicans, Representatives Howard P. McKeon of California and Eric Cantor of Virginia. A hold has no legal effect on the aid, which has already been appropriated, but it is rare for an administration to ignore one.

Now, I understand the Congressional impulse to do something here — I really do.  What I don’t understand is how Congress thinks that withholding aid from the Lebanese military will weaken Hezbollah.  Congress seems to think that anything that aids the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will concomitantly aid Hezbollah.  The latter group, however, has independent sources of financial, political and military support.  It’s better to think of the LAF as a competing power base than as a conduit to Hezbollah.  Anything that weakens national institutions in Lebanon empowers the groups that can survive in a more anarchical environment — and gee, whaddaya know, that would include Hezbollah. 

It’s possible that these thoughts have passed through the staff of Berman, Cantor, Lowey and McKeon.  It’s also possible that these staffers simply sad "f*** it, this will look like our member of Congress is doing something."  I can certainly respect the raw political calculation involved here.  But it’s a stupid, counterproductive move in terms of the national interest — and they should know better.