Boehner’s Rocky Tenure Marked by Deep Foreign-Policy Scars
John Boehner’s tenure as speaker of the House was largely shaped by his inability to ride herd over fractious members of his own party. But his tenure will also be remembered for a sharp increase in the partisan divide over key foreign-policy issues -- an outcome that weakened some of Washington’s most important relationships and reduced America’s standing overseas.
John Boehner’s tenure as speaker of the House was largely shaped by his inability to ride herd over fractious members of his own party. But his tenure will also be remembered for a sharp increase in the partisan divide over key foreign-policy issues -- an outcome that some say weakened key relationships and reduced America’s standing overseas.
John Boehner’s tenure as speaker of the House was largely shaped by his inability to ride herd over fractious members of his own party. But his tenure will also be remembered for a sharp increase in the partisan divide over key foreign-policy issues — an outcome that some say weakened key relationships and reduced America’s standing overseas.
For many conservatives, no one is more to blame for this uptick in partisanship than President Barack Obama, who they accuse of deliberately weakening the U.S.-Israel relationship and blocking congressional oversight on everything from the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran to the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
But few events stoked more partisan friction than Boehner’s decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in March without first notifying the White House — a breach of diplomatic protocol exacerbated by the fact that Netanyahu used the speech to actively lobby against the president’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Political infighting erupted as soon as Netanyahu accepted the invitation and announced on Jan. 22 that it had been extended “on behalf of the bipartisan leadership” in Congress. Top Democrats in the House and Senate shot back immediately, saying they had not been consulted on the decision.
At the time, Boehner did not hide the fact that the purpose of the invitation was to try to block a deal that was the White House’s highest foreign-policy priority. “I did not consult with the White House. The Congress can make this decision on its own,” he said at a press conference. “There’s a serious threat that exists in the world. And the president … papered over it.”
Several Democratic lawmakers boycotted Netanyahu’s fiery speech against the president’s “bad deal,” which triggered a bitter political battle that played out for months with officials in the United States and Israel trading insults in the press and pro-Israel organizations lobbying Democrats to break with the president. At the end of the fight, Senate Democrats preserved the deal in a vote that broke sharply along partisan lines and frayed relations between Washington and Jerusalem. Pro-Israel advocates are still debating over who’s to blame for the downturn in the relationship.
“John Boehner’s time as speaker was unfortunately marked by Israel becoming ever more of a partisan political football,” said Dylan Williams of the left-leaning pro-Israel group J Street. “I hope that his replacement — whoever that may be — will work to change that dynamic.”
Mark McNulty of the Republican Jewish Coalition agrees Israel has become a more partisan issue, but lays the blame exclusively at Obama’s footsteps. “I think he’ll be remembered as a stalwart supporter of the pro-Israel agenda in the United States, especially at a time when Democrats and this president have made a concerted effort to change the fundamentals of the relationship and put daylight between Israel and United States,” he told Foreign Policy.
Israel isn’t the only foreign affairs issue that became hyper-politicized in the Boehner era. The 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that resulted in the death of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, also sparked heated cross-party fighting.
Last year, Boehner appointed Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to lead a new committee to investigate the incident despite the existence of previous reports and investigations by the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight and Government Reform committees, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the State Department’s Accountability Review Board. In one case, the GOP-controlled House Intelligence Committee refuted a number of key conservative charges that a “stand down” order was given to U.S. officials who could’ve helped the victims.
Republicans charge that the White House has not been forthcoming about the way the deadly attacks transpired while Democrats accuse Republicans of conducting a political witch hunt. Gowdy’s committee has a $3.3 million budget, but has been committing most of its investigative resources as of late to Hillary Clinton’s private email server. While some establishment voices in the Republican Party have signaled that it’s time for the party to move on from the issue, many Tea Party Republicans remain determined to continue questioning the administration about the attack.
On the anniversary of the Sept. 11 assault earlier this month, Gowdy issued a statement saying his committee would continue to pursue the investigation “despite the administration’s obstruction and the attempts by others to distract from the investigation.”
The clashing of establishment and Tea Party voices has typified Boehner’s tenure in many ways, most significantly during the government shutdown in 2013 following the speaker’s failure to pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling. In that instance, House conservatives tried to link funding to the U.S. government to the repeal of the Obama’s health care reform legislation, a gamble that Republicans abandoned after a politically disastrous 16-day shutdown.
During that time, world leaders across many foreign capitals expressed concern about the U.S. political system as some 800,000 federal workers were furloughed indefinitely and 1.3 million were required to show up for work without knowing when they’d be paid. In a notably candid interview, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Washington’s actions would send a “negative signal which will last much longer that the shutdown.”
While Republican operatives acknowledge the shutdown was not Boehner’s finest hour, they give him kudos for eventually heading off the maximalist wing of the party. “He deserves credit for eventually finding a way forward, but it certainly didn’t look good,” said one Republican congressional aide. “I remember being in Japan at the time, and the Japanese were like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
In other ways, splits between the libertarian and neoconservative wings of the Republican Party have made Boehner’s job more difficult, especially with regards to passing a war authorization for the Obama administration’s ongoing military campaign against the Islamic State. Lawmakers in both parties have been frustrated with Boehner’s inability to forge consensus on what is considered by many to be an infringement on Congress’s constitutional prerogative to declare war.
“Speaker Boehner has been deeply devoted to the Congress, which I admire, but in one area his unwillingness to take on a key responsibility has seriously undermined the institution — and that is the failure to bring a new authorization to use force before the House,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told FP. “More than a year into the war against ISIS, Congress’s abdication of its responsibility to debate or authorize the conflict will diminish its role as a check on the executive’s war-making power for many years to come.”
The problem for Boehner, which was shared by his counterpart in the Senate, is that Republicans are divided over what a war authorization against the Islamic State should look like. While hawkish Republicans would like to grant Obama broad-sweeping powers to conduct airstrikes and put U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria, others want to put geographical and time limits on the war authorization.
“In recent years, Speaker Boehner has been faced with an increasingly fractious Republican caucus on national security issues, and this has made his job unavoidably more difficult,” Jamil Jaffer, a Republican and former senior Senate staffer, told FP.
With Friday’s announcement, that difficult job will soon fall to someone else.
Photo credit: Getty Images
John Hudson was a staff writer and reporter at Foreign Policy from 2013-2017.
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