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Congress’ Screwed-Up Foreign Policy Priorities

Congress tries to interfere with U.S. diplomacy while giving the president free rein to wage illegal wars.

Paul Pillar remarks on Congress’ screwed-up priorities regarding its role in foreign policy decisions:

The role that the U.S. Congress has assumed for itself as a player in foreign policy exhibits an odd and indefensible pattern these days. Senator Chris Murphy calls it a “double standard,” although that might be too mild a term. On one hand there are vigorous efforts to insert Congress into the negotiation of an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. The efforts extend even to attempts to interfere in the details of what is being negotiated, as reflected in a string of amendments being considered in debate in the Senate this week on a bill laying out a procedure for Congress to pass a quick judgment on the agreement. On the other hand there is inaction, with little or no prospect of any action, on an authorization for the use of military force against the so-called Islamic State.

Pillar is right that this is just the opposite of what Congress should be doing. If there is a time when Congress ought to be deferring to the executive on foreign policy, it is when the U.S. is involved in negotiations with other governments. The same people that claim to be horrified by the idea of “535 commanders-in-chief” believe that they must sound off early and often on every detail of a complex negotiated settlement. War can be left to the discretion of the president and his officials, but not diplomacy. The same members that can’t be bothered to assume their proper constitutional responsibilities and happily yield to one illegal presidential war after another cannot wait to meddle in a diplomatic process that, if successful, will make a future conflict less likely.

Interventionists in Congress have no problem if a president starts wars on his own, because he is pursuing the policy they would have voted for anyway if they were bothered to vote on such things. They are alarmed by negotiations that could make it more difficult for a future president to attack the regime involved in the talks. These hawks have excessive confidence that military action can “solve” problems overseas, and so they don’t to impose limits on what the U.S. does in its foreign wars. They tend to see diplomacy as nothing but appeasement and therefore something that should be undermined, second-guessed, and sabotaged as much as possible.

Other members of Congress have no strong ideological motivation for this behavior, but simply want to be able to grandstand on major issues without suffering serious political consequences. They are glad to avoid having to vote one way or another on a war, since that potentially could come back to haunt them if the war drags on, if it fails, or if many Americans are killed. It’s safer and easier for them to cheer on a president’s illegal war when it’s popular and then start griping about it when it goes badly, and because they never cast a vote one for or against the war they can have it both ways. If Congressional meddling succeeds in damaging negotiations, any later costs to the U.S. from that missed opportunity won’t be linked back to the meddling members of Congress. If the meddling doesn’t work as intended, most people will quickly forget it. In the meantime, the meddlers will get credit for “standing up” against appeasement or whatever nonsensical description they choose to use. Unfortunately, there is normally no political cost for members of Congress that want to use diplomacy with an unpopular government as an excuse to demagogue and look “tough” to the voters back home. That is why many of them will try to interfere with U.S. diplomacy while giving the president free rein to wage illegal wars for as long as he wants.