A Chaotic Start: Foreign Affairs in the New U.S. Congress

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 2, February 2019

By William R. Hawkins

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with Nechirvan Barzani, outgoing Prime Minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in the province’s capital Arbil during a Middle East tour, on January 9, 2019. The eight-day tour comes weeks after the US President announced that the United States would quickly pull its 2,000 soldiers out of Syria, declaring that IS — also known as ISIS — had been defeated. Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty.

It is widely held that the direction of foreign policy has shifted almost wholly to the executive branch. The only issue being under which president did this happen? Ronald Regan? Franklin Roosevelt? Woodrow Wilson? Teddy Roosevelt? Or even George Washington as the inherent result of the creation of the presidency itself. The Constitution was created to correct the lack of national leadership in the prior Confederation period when there was only a Congress. But one only needs to look at the first actions of the 116th Congress to understand why a major factor in this evolution of power has been the confusion and institutional flaws that render Congress unsuited for the conduct of international affairs. Its role is limited to being a forum for supporting or opposing the policies set by the Commander-in-Chief.

On January 31, the Senate voted 68-23 (with 9 Senators not voting) to advance an amendment which the media widely reported as a “rebuke” of President Donald Trump’s policies in the Middle East, though Sen. Jim Risch (R- ID), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, denied that was the case. The purpose of the amendment was “To express the sense of the Senate that the United States faces continuing threats from terrorist groups operating in Syria and Afghanistan and that the precipitous withdrawal of United States forces from either country could put at risk hard-won gains and United States national security.” The action was sparked by President Trump’s decision to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops currently operating in Syria and half of the 14,000 troops based in Afghanistan. On February 4, the amendment itself was adopted by a similar vote of 70-26, but is non-binding. Offered by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, it is included in the larger Mideast Act of 2019 whose fate is uncertain.

The Mideast Act concentrates on arming Israel and Jordan, which will stir opposition from many on the Left. It also seeks to “combat” the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” movement that seeks to punish Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, another left-wing cause. The bill also keeps the door open for involvement in Syria in regard to sanctions and the provision of humanitarian aid which would likely require military protection to be delivered.

Unfortunately, neither the amendment nor the larger bill mentions protection for the Kurds who have been fighting by our side and who are menaced not only by ISIS but by Turkey and Iran. President Trump has said the withdrawal from Syria will not be ” precipitous’ but will take into account the safety of the Kurds. The proposed legislation mentions Iran only in passing in regard to Israel. President Trump, however, intends to keep troops in Iraq (including those shifted from Syria) to deter further Iranian expansion. Tehran’s regular units, along with  Hezbollah, and other militia groups Iran supports, pose a much larger danger than the demolished ISIS Caliphate. Yet, any emphasis on confronting Iran would alienate leftist and libertarian support for the bill.

The cloture vote took place two days after the Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual hearing on worldwide threats. The heads of the nation’s intelligence agencies painted a grim picture of the major challenges facing the U.S. not just in the Middle East but in Asia and Europe as well. Hawkish lawmakers jumped on reports that the Islamic State still had thousands of fighters in the field, though Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, noted that ISIS had been pushed back to “guerrilla tactics” which is what an enemy does when its main forces have been defeated.

Terrorism and guerrilla warfare are at the low end of the conflict spectrum. It is what an enemy does when it lacks the capability to do anything else. Since it doesn’t take much effort to conduct terrorist attacks, it is virtually impossible to “destroy” fanatical movements and bring an end to a war. The task is to suppress and attrite them so they never gain the strength needed to seize power. It is a long contest to see who has the will to continue fighting and who will grow weary and give up.  If the level of enemy violence can be kept low enough, local forces can defend themselves with only minimal American support.

At least, this is the hope of the Trump administration which is adjusting U.S. military deployments to meet a much larger threat than terrorism; what its National Defense Strategy has identified as Great Power competition with Russia and China (and regional powers like Iran whom they support). Besides calling for a U.S. military buildup, the NDS calls for “a robust constellation of allies and partners” to “ensure a favorable balance of power.” No hint of isolationism here.

The Senate cloture vote was not the final action on its measure and thus was not a true indication of how the debate will turn out. As the Washington Post reported, “The measure divided Senate Democrats, with many arguing that rebuking Trump was not worth the cost of green-lighting endless war.” The liberal newspaper also noted that “Nearly every Senate Democrat expected to run for president in 2020 voted against the amendment.” So did several libertarian-isolationist Republicans. This sets the stage for the reappearance of the “bi-partisan” Left-libertarian coalition seen at the end of the 115th Congress when the Senate passed a resolution that sought to limit the president from doing too much in the Middle East rather than for not doing enough.

The earlier resolution sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) intended to stab America’s ally Saudi Arabia in the back while it was fighting Iran-backed insurgents in Yemen. If implemented, it would cut off U.S. logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi-led coalition, as well as arms sales and resupply. It would put at risk hard-won gains and United States national security, to use the language of the new amendment. Every Democrat voted for Sander’s resolution as well as enough libertarian Republicans to form a majority. A full analysis of this resolution can be found in my December 23 column “Senate Undermines America as an Alliance Partner” for this journal.

Meanwhile in the U.S. House, the NATO Support Act (H.R. 676) was passed on a vote of 357-22 on January 22. That every Democrat voted for it is the first clue that this was mainly a political stunt meant to reinforce the Left’s narrative that President Donald Trump has “attacked” our allies while appeasing (if not actually acting as an agent of) Russia. This bill was introduced by second-term Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), a decorated Navy veteran whose coastal district contains several military bases. This has made him an advocate for veterans, but he is otherwise a standard liberal; for aid to illegal aliens and gun control and against offshore oil drilling. He is the son of Leon Panetta, a CIA Director and Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama. He is thus the perfect poster boy for a party trying to hide its dramatic shift to the Left.

The bill states as policy “to reject any efforts to withdraw the United States from NATO.” The NATO Support Act was prompted by media reports that President Trump had discussed a U.S. withdrawal from NATO. These reports were taken out of context of the effort the President was making to pressure America’s allies to contribute more to the joint defense effort. His message was that if the Europeans were not interested in a strong NATO, whose primary purpose is to defend them, why should the U.S. care? The campaign worked; not to weaken NATO, but to strengthen it. At the July summit last year, NATO pledged that its members would increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024 and claimed this time they meant it. Though this is not as great an increase as President Trump wanted, it was a movement in the right direction. President Trump reportedly told the NATO summit that he wanted an alliance increase to 4 percent of GDP to match the military buildup he was implementing in the U.S.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has publicly “thanked him for his leadership on defense spending” stating that “Since President Trump took office; NATO allies across Europe and Canada have spent an additional $41 billion extra in U.S. dollars on defense.”

Also at the summit, President Trump criticized Germany for increasing its dependence on Russian oil imports, saying “We’re supposed to protect you against Russia and yet you make this deal with Russia.” Ronald Reagan made the same complaint when he was in the White House and Moscow was first pushing its pipelines westward. President Trump’s behavior is that of a leader who knows full well the revanchist agenda of Vladimir Putin. President Trump would like to talk Putin into taking a different line, and to pull him away from alignment with China. A wise diplomatic strategy, but one to which President Putin is not receptive.

For over two years the Democrats and their minions in the media have pushed a narrative of “collusion” with Russia which has always been absurd. Indeed, under this administration the U.S. maintains a battle group in Poland as part of a NATO deterrent which includes British, Canadian and German troops in the Baltic States. And it should not be forgotten that President Trump ordered a missile strike that destroyed Russian-supplied bombers that the Syrian regime was using against civilians in its civil war. American warships are operating in the Black Sea and maintaining sanctions on Moscow in reaction to its seizure of Crimea during the Obama administration.

On February 1, the President announced the US was suspending the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and would withdraw from it in six months if Russia did not abandon deployment of missiles prohibited by the agreement. And on the same day, NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg confirmed that intelligence collected from many countries over many years showed Russia was breaking the treaty. 

It is notable that the NATO Support Act endorses President Trump’s key point about the alliance without crediting him for it. The bill “strongly supports the decision at the NATO Wales Summit in 2014 that each alliance member would aim to spend at least 2 percent of its nation’s gross domestic product on defense by 2024.” Though the Wales summit took place during President Obama’s term, it has taken President Trump to get the ball rolling. After all, President Obama’s “hollowing out” of the U.S. military did not set a very good example.

The bill also pledges “to support robust United States funding for the European Deterrence Initiative, which increases the ability of the United States and its allies to deter and defend against Russian aggression.” But when it comes time to actually appropriate additional money for defense, will the new Democratic House majority do so? Or will it cut the military to shift funds to its ambitious domestic spending agenda for “free” health care, housing, college and the “inclusion” of illegal immigrants? A group of 100 “intellectuals, scholars and activists” has already sent an open letter to Sen. Bernie Sanders calling for defense cuts to be a major goal of the new Congress. And most of the prospective Democratic candidates for president in 2020 have pledged to do so.

Where the party is headed can be seen in the current (Jan-Feb) issue of Foreign Affairs in an essay by Brian McKean and Caroline Tess entitled “How Congress Can Take Back Foreign Policy.” Both authors held midlevel national security positions in the Obama Administration after having served as Democratic Senate staffers. They applauded Sen. Sanders’ resolution to cut off support for Saudi Arabia, and set it in a wider effort to control arms sales in general. They look back to the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 which sought to limit sales even to “trusted” allies to avoid arms races or the escalation of conflicts; unilateral restraints that can only encourage aggressors. The McKean-Tess essay is filled with nostalgia for the 1970s when large, post-impeachment Democratic majorities in Congress spurred America’s world-wide retreat, starting with the betrayal of South Vietnam which triggered the “killing fields” ending millions of lives as Communist forces swept cross Southeast Asia. It took the election of Ronald Reagan to turn the tide back towards victory in the Cold War.

That McKean and Tess do not mention the results of the policies they embrace destroys the credibility of their arguments. The gap between theory and practice is common to those who try to assert a “constitutional” case foe Congressional supremacy in defense and foreign policy. The iconic phrase “the Constitution is not a suicide pact” certainly applies here.

Some on the Left have broken with partisan posturing to preach their true beliefs. David Swanson, author of several “anti-war” books, penned a column for the Left-wing website OPED News entitled “10 Reasons Not to Love NATO.” He argued that President Trump is not anti-NATO and is no friend to Russia, though he should be! “He has demanded that NATO members buy more weapons, which is of course a horrible idea.” Swanson claims that NATO has always been the aggressor in Europe, even during the Cold War. The Soviets were not a threat and neither is President Putin. A more mainstream liberal, Stephen Wertheim, a historian at the University of London, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post asserting that “Trump isn’t an isolationist. He is a militarist, something far worse.” And on February 5, the liberal New York Times editorial “End the war in Afghanistan” argued, “Walking away from a war is not a strategy. But an orderly withdrawal of NATO forces can be organized and executed before the year is out and more lives are lost to a lost cause.”

It will not be long before the true trajectory of liberal national security policy becomes clear. Just keep an eye on House hearings and the drafting of the next National Defense Authorization Act and related appropriations bills. When the fake posturing ends, the real work will begin.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former Republican staff member on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. JPR Status: Opinion.