Terms of Engagement

Welcome, Know-Nothings

The new Congress is a bunch of ignoramuses when it comes to foreign policy. And, frankly, that's probably a good thing right now.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The 113th Congress has just been sworn in, and it’s a safe bet that it will be no more engaged with foreign policy, and no more competent to serve as a useful check on the Obama administration, than was its predecessor. This is mostly a prerogative of the opposition, and congressional Republicans have paid remarkably little attention to President Barack Obama’s conduct of foreign affairs. Last month, they roused themselves to block confirmation of a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled, which apparently posed a grave threat to the nation’s sovereignty. In recent weeks, of course, the GOP has lashed itself into a fury over the September 11 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, laboring to gin up a tragic mishap into a full-fledged scandal. But on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, China, and the war on terror — not much. Really, it’s been a blessing.

It has not always been so, of course. While foreign policy, unlike domestic policy, does not normally depend on legislation or congressional authorization, thus giving far greater latitude to the executive branch, presidents have often had to face stiff resistance from Congress. President Lyndon Johnson provoked a storm of opposition on Capitol Hill when he escalated the Vietnam War; William Fulbright, a fellow Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), impaneled a series of hearings that showcased devastating critiques of Johnson’s conduct of the war. Politicians on both sides of the aisle believed that Johnson had hoodwinked them into supporting the Gulf of Tonkin resolution enabling the escalation; many of them vowed never again to automatically defer to the president’s authority to conduct foreign policy. 

In the mid-1970s, Democratic Senator Frank Church conducted spectacular hearings into the CIA’s history of assassinations. Republicans fought President Jimmy Carter every step of the way on his human rights policy and support for left-leaning regimes in Latin America. When Ronald Reagan reversed Carter’s policies in order to back anti-Communist insurgents, a Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Boland Amendment banning military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. It was this prohibition that Reagan tried to evade with the elaborate subterfuge known as Iran-Contra — which was itself fully exposed to the public in the Senate’s weeks-long Iran-Contra hearings that made Oliver North a household name. Had President Richard Nixon’s impeachment not been fresh in everyone’s minds, Democrats might well have moved to impeach Reagan over the lies required to conduct a secret foreign policy.

The election of 1994, which swept conservatives to power, marked the demise of the centrist tradition in foreign (and domestic) policy. Jesse Helms, the new Republican chairman of the SFRC, wanted to get rid of the U.N., which he did his best to defund, and did not much like foreign countries (though he did his best to keep Rhodesia in white hands). It was mortifying to try to explain to foreigners how such a yahoo had come to exercise so much influence over U.S. foreign policy. Still, even Helms was prepared to make deals with Joe Biden, the committee’s senior Democrat. "Helms was perfectly happy to have a strongly assertive role for Congress in foreign policy," says Norman Ornstein, the congressional sage who hangs his battered hat at the American Enterprise Institute.

That may cast a slightly generous retrospective glow on "Cousin Jesse," who mostly seemed to want a strongly assertive role for himself. But what is certainly true is that senior Republicans like Bob Dole still considered foreign policy an essential element of their job (though even Dole shamelessly pandered to the know-nothing right when he ran for president in 1996, lampooning U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali as if he were a cartoon character). Some of these figures continued to serve up to the present, the most obvious example being Richard Lugar, the just-replaced ranking Republican on SFRC and a leading authority on arms control. Lugar was defeated in a primary by a far-right conservative, which certainly sends a message to any Republican thinking of making a name for himself as a player — that is, a non-obstructive one — on international affairs.  

Ornstein argues that the big change in recent years is that today’s generation of yahoos, who view government itself with contempt, have little interest in defending Congress’s institutional role. He views the debate over the disability treaty, where members thronged around a wheelchair-bound Bob Dole before voting down the treaty he had come to endorse — a treaty that mostly codified U.S. law but was opposed by home-schoolers — as a low point. "That kind of obstruction means almost willfully obviating a serious role for the Senate," Ornstein says. "That suggests to a president that if you can find any way to accomplish your goals through executive action, you should."

I think that’s part, but not all, of the problem. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have drained public faith that the United States can and should do good in the world, leading to a surly mood toward foreign policy on the left as well as the right and stirring up the nativism that is never far from the surface of American life. It has long been true that a politician can make waves by attacking the U.N., but can only hurt himself by defending it; now the same has increasingly become true of foreign policy itself. Serious figures in both parties today steer clear of the foreign relations committees. If John Kerry does become secretary of state, the new SFRC chairman will be Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American whose international portfolio to date consists largely of hostility to the Castro regime. And the defeat of Howard Berman, a bipartisan figure whose active role on international affairs left him vulnerable to a Republican challenger, leaves Eliot Engel, no heavyweight, as the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On the positive side, the chairmanship of the committee has passed from Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another Cuban-American, who championed deep cuts in foreign aid and State Department spending, to Ed Royce, generally considered a moderate.

But the Republicans have a very specific problem of their own: They can’t make a serious dent in Barack Obama’s foreign policy. This is in part because their nativist base doesn’t care, but also because by carrying out the war on terror more or less as George W. Bush did, Obama has neutralized the traditional argument that Democrats are soft on bad guys. Congressional Republicans haven’t subjected Obama’s prosecution of the war in Afghanistan, or his response to the Arab Spring, to the searching scrutiny that previous presidents have had to endure because they don’t have a meaningful alternative to offer. They do, however, exploit whatever small opportunities they can find to cast Obama as a danger to national security — for example, by blocking any effort to transfer detainees from military prisons.

And this brings us to Benghazi, the great foreign-policy "debate" of 2012. The furor over the deaths of Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans, which has lead to multiple congressional investigations, has almost nothing to do with broad questions of policy and everything to do with probing for weak spots in Obama’s armor. The fact that the assault has been led by John McCain, the GOP’s most respected spokesman on foreign affairs, only makes its triviality more appalling. McCain seems to have an Ahab-like obsession with Obama, or at least with Obama-as-commander in chief. Benghazi is his harpoon.

The hullaballoo over Benghazi has proved embarrassing even to serious conservatives. Gary Schmitt, a national security expert at AEI, agrees that very few Republicans now care about either foreign policy or Congress’s role in shaping it. And he acknowledges that McCain and others have drawn no attention to what he himself considers the deep story on Benghazi: Obama’s unwillingness to shoulder the burden of "nation-building and deep engagement" in the Middle East, his self-evident wish to put the whole mess behind him, and the cold shoulder he has turned to the insurgents in Syria. "There should be a debate about whether we’re going to let Iraq define policy for the next 20 years," Schmitt says. "But nobody seems to be joining in that debate."

Presidents need to be pushed back by an active, if not obstreperous, Congress — a fact that Democrats learned only after years of timidly acquiescing to Bush’s Global War On Terror. Today’s congressional Republicans will do almost anything they can to make President Obama fail, but they can’t be bothered to devise a practical alternative to his policies, foreign or domestic.

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