The president establishes American foreign policy and is commander in chief. At least that’s what the Constitution states. Then Congress oversees the president’s policies by either granting or withholding money to carry them out — in addition to approving treaties and authorizing war.
Apparently, the founding fathers were worried about dozens of renegade congressional leaders and committees speaking on behalf of the United States and opportunistically freelancing with foreign leaders.
In our past, self-appointed moralists — from Charles Lindbergh and Joe Kennedy to Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson — have, from time to time, tried to engage in diplomacy directly contrary to the president’s.
But usually Americans agree to let one elected president and his secretary of state speak for the United States abroad. Then if they’re displeased with the results, they can show it at the ballot box every two years in national or midterm elections.
But recently hundreds in Congress have decided that they’re better suited to handle international affairs than the State Department.
The U.S. Senate late last month passed a resolution urging the de facto breakup of wartime Iraq into federal enclaves along sectarian lines — even though this is not the official policy of the Bush administration, much less the wish of a sovereign elected government in Baghdad.
That Senate vote only makes it tougher for 160,000 American soldiers to stabilize a unitary Iraq. And Iraqis I spoke with during my recent trip to Iraq are confused over why the U.S. Congress would preach to them how to split apart their own country.
Then, last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution condemning Turkey for genocide against the Armenian people, atrocities committed nearly a century ago during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire.
If the entire House approves the resolution, the enraged Ankara government could do everything from invade Iraqi Kurdistan — in hot pursuit of suspected Kurdish guerrillas — to curtail U.S. over-flight privileges and restrict use of American military bases in Turkey.
This new falling-out could interfere with supplying our soldiers in Iraq. And it complicates a myriad of issues, from the NATO alliance to Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.
The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, earlier this year took another hot-button foreign-policy matter into her own hands when she made a special trip to reach out to Syria’s strongman, Bashar Assad.
That visit to Damascus was played up in the government-run Syrian press as proof that ordinary Americans don’t feel that Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism. Never mind that the Assad dictatorship helps terrorists get into Iraq to kill American soldiers, is suspected of involvement with the assassinations of journalists and democratic leaders in Lebanon, and recently had bombed by the Israelis a facility reported to contain a partially built nuclear reactor.
What are we to make of a Congress that now wants to establish rather than just oversee U.S. foreign policy? Can it act as a foil to the president and so give our diplomats leverage abroad with wayward nations: "We suggest you do x, before our volatile Congress demands we do y?"
Maybe — but any good is vastly outweighed by the bad. Partisan politics often drive these anti-administration foreign policies, aimed at making the president look weak abroad and embarrassed at home.
House representatives too often preach their own district politics, less so the American people’s interest as a whole. What might ensure their re-election or win local campaign funds isn’t necessarily good for the United States and its allies.
And too often we see frustrated senators posture in debate during televised hearings, trying out for the role of chief executive or commander in chief. Most could never get elected president — many have tried — but they seem to enjoy the notion that their own under-appreciated brilliance and insight should supersede the collective efforts of the State Department.
So they travel abroad, pass resolutions and pontificate a lot, but rarely have to clean up the ensuing mess of their own freelancing of American foreign policy.
Congress should stick to its constitutional mandate and quit the publicity gestures. If it is unhappy with the ongoing effort to stabilize a unified Iraq, then it should act seriously and vote to cut off all funds and bring the troops home.
If the House wants to punish Turkey for denying that its Ottoman forefathers engaged in a horrific genocide, then let congressional members likewise deny funds for our military to stay among such a genocide-denying amoral host.
If Speaker Pelosi believes that Syria is not a terrorist entity but a country worth re-engaging diplomatically, then let her in mature fashion introduce legislation that would resume full American financial relations with our new partner Damascus.
Otherwise, it’s all talk — and dangerous talk at that.