The War Over Who Controls U.S. Foreign Policy Has Begun
Sanctions on Russia are just the beginning.
The unprecedented, massive new sanctions bill that Congress sent to President Donald Trump on Thursday is a statement of outrage by legislators over the president’s failure to responsibly carry out foreign policy on Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Fundamentally, it is also an overt effort to seize the national security reins from the president.
Legislators are near unanimous in their support for a tougher U.S. policy stance on some of the gravest national security challenges. Many believe that Trump and former President Barack Obama have not acted strongly enough to check Iran’s ballistic missile program, support for terrorism, and efforts to destabilize the Middle East, as well as North Korea’s alarming race toward long-range nuclear weapons capabilities.
Lawmakers took matters into their own hands and wrote the new sanctions legislation to address these threats. But the real target and virulence of their bill is the set of financial measures aimed squarely at Russia. A raft of new sanctions are designed to hold Moscow to account for its meddling in U.S. democratic processes and its continued aggressive actions in Europe and the Middle East.
In practical terms, the new Russia measures lock into statute existing sanctions, preventing the president from throwing them out. And they go much further: New provisions will cut deeper into the profit-making and international engagement of Russia’s defense, intelligence, energy, banking, rail, mining, and metals sectors. They also target Russian cyberintrusions, and the country’s military support for the Syrian regime. Taken together, these new restrictions send an appropriately tough message to the Kremlin that the United States will not tolerate Russia’s election meddling and thuggery.
As tough as the legislation is, however, serving up venomous financial sanctions is nothing new. The truly remarkable and unprecedented element of this piece of law is an innocuously dubbed “congressional review” of sanctions. It handcuffs the president in his exercise of sanctions by creating elaborate mechanisms for scrutiny and blockade to prevent watering down of Russia policy. Congress wants the president on a very short leash.
This power grab is not dissimilar to Congress’s creation of the War Powers Resolution in 1973 to check the executive’s ability to engage in armed conflict without legislative consent. Now, as then, many legislators see the current state of affairs as dire, necessitating remarkable measures.
But there’s a very high price to pay for this assertion of legislative prerogative. Congress is taking an irreversible step to significantly undermine one of the most prominent nonmilitary foreign policy tools available to the United States. Sanctions will be less nimble, less available, and the country’s leverage to compel adversaries to change their threatening policies weakened.
Two factors explain why the Russia bill will curb the utility of sanctions as a tool of statecraft. First, Congress is ill-suited to tightly manage their implementation over a sustained period — it lacks the necessary intelligence assets, bureaucratic structure, and legal capabilities. Congress will slow down policy change and make sanctions more clumsy and punitive, and less flexible.
The other factor to undermine the utility of sanctions is that this law recasts them as less of a motivator for policy change. Congress, with its powerful hold over any diminution of Russia sanctions but cumbersome bureaucratic structure, will struggle to coordinate and act to give Russia relief from sanctions if political circumstances change. Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot practically negotiate on sanctions with the whole U.S. Congress. He will see no utility in making good on Minsk commitments. Even if he does, the sanctions appear locked in place.
The foreign policy consequences don’t end there. Congress will likely replicate in other bills this straightjacket approach to review of sanctions. And if it does, this could have the effect of limiting the ability of the executive branch to recalibrate sanctions in a myriad of other areas. The next president, and successors, will all be handcuffed on sanctions and have less flexibility to lead U.S. foreign policy.
In a world rife with security threats, it is dangerous to diminish our foreign policy flexibility and nonmilitary tools of statecraft. Some in Congress realize what a high-stakes move they are making and will try to address the consequences later. But the overwhelming support of legislators for the new sanctions bill makes clear the danger they see in leaving Russia policy up to the president.
This is only the first round of the fight. The administration will chafe at the congressional strictures and find ways to push back, including by failing to fully implementing the new sanctions. In turn, Congress can be expected to ferociously micromanage any administration action to alter and enforce Russia sanctions. We will probably see hearings on specific license requests and narrow use of waivers, and a showdown over what constitutes “significant” foreign policy toward Russia.
Congress has scored a victory in passing this bill despite the objections of the White House, but the fight over who controls the direction of U.S. foreign policy is far from over.
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