The List

This Fight Ain't Over

Think the debt ceiling gridlock was ugly? Congress is just getting warmed up. Here are eight more foreign-policy battles right around the corner.

While imperiling global markets, enraging the American people, and generally doing little of benefit for the country besides giving pundits something to talk about, the U.S. debt ceiling crisis also brought almost every other piece of important congressional business to a halt for weeks, if not months.

"Just to speak to how dysfunctional the U.S. Senate is, we're here over the debt ceiling, but instead of focusing on the issue at hand, we're going to focus on something that's irrelevant possibly and has nothing to do with why we're here," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said last month when he insisted that Congress not talk about Libya until the economy is fixed. "Let's not take up an issue that will have no effect on and has nothing to do with the debt ceiling, and take on those issues that will."

Now that a deal has been struck, lawmakers should be able to return to the other pending matters on their agenda -- after they get back from their five-week vacation, that is. And when they do finally return to town, they'll face a long list of foreign policy and national security issues that are priorities for President Barack Obama's administration, but which remain stalled on Capitol Hill.

Here are the top eight foreign-policy items currently held up by the do-nothing 112th Congress.

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National Security Funding

The fiscal 2011 year concludes at the end of September, which means that all federal agencies will need new funding to keep operating. But Congress still hasn't completed any of the 12 appropriations bills that are required to do so, and there's almost no chance that this will get done during what's sure to be a hectic September schedule.

Sadly, this is becoming a familiar pattern: Congress completely failed to pass a fiscal 2011 budget, instead funding the government through a series of short-term measures known as continuing resolutions until they couldn't even agree on one of those and the government almost shut down. If the budgets aren't passed by the end of September, lawmakers will once again have to pass a continuing resolution to keep the lights on and to make sure federal employees and soldiers get paid beginning on Oct. 1.

In the House of Representatives, appropriators have already done some work on the funding bills for the Defense Department, the State Department, and foreign operations, but a lot of that good work is sure to go to waste because the funding levels in those bills will have to change due to the cuts mandated in the debt deal. In the Senate, the defense authorization bill will also have to be rewritten because of the debt deal, something that Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) still aren't clear on. In short, all the national security agencies in the government will have to once again deal with an uncertain funding picture. With unknown -- but coming -- cuts to their budget, it'll make for a hectic time. The one thing they can count on is that Congress will likely wait until the very last minute to fulfill its responsibility to fund the government.

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The Libya War

Only Congress has the power to declare war and only Congress has the power to fund wars -- at least in theory. The Obama administration has waged a war in Libya since March, largely on its own discretion (and with existing funding), and after a fit of foot-stomping an unhappy Congress has shirked its duty to provide substantial oversight of the operation.

Despite furious complaints on Capitol Hill that the Obama administration went to war without consulting Congress and without an endgame, the Senate has yet to debate, much less pass, a resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and McCain have been trying to forge bipartisan legislation that would endorse the Libya war, but the bill has never reached the Senate floor. In the House, there's so much schizophrenia that lawmakers actually voted not to authorize the Libya war -- but also voted not to cut off the funding for the mission.

The debate has created some strange dynamics within Congress. Normally gun-shy Democrats have defended the military intervention, while Republicans criticized Obama for abusing his power to authorize military force. Meanwhile, liberals and Tea Party budget hawks have made common cause in opposition to the mission. The president also won no fans on Capitol Hill by claiming that the Libya operation did not rise to the level of "hostilities" and therefore was not subject to the constraints of the War Powers Resolution -- a contention that nobody in Congress is buying and that even Levin, a strong Obama supporter, said was "dubious."

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Nominations and Confirmations

It may sound obvious, but it's pretty tough to have an effective foreign policy if you don't have warm bodies in key posts around the world and in Washington. There are various reasons that Congress is so often late in confirming administration nominees for diplomatic and national security posts. Investigations into a nominee's background or politics, holds placed by individual senators looking for some pork to bring home or a concession on an unrelated matter, and general laziness top the list.

Sometimes the problem is just finding the time to hold hearings. Only one senator could make time to show up for the Tuesday, Aug. 2, hearing for Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. Wednesday's hearing for nominee Wendy Sherman to become undersecretary of state for political affairs was canceled because senators left town early. Sometimes, senators thwart nominations simply as a way to criticize administration policy bite -- as was the case with Ford, whose nomination was first blocked because senators objected to sending a U.S. envoy to Damascus.

When it wants to, the Senate has shown it can confirm lots of nominees in short order. But right now, several top appointees are waiting in the wings and their seats in government remain vacant while Congress takes its sweet time.


Arms Control

The Obama administration came into office promising an ambitious arms control agenda that would seek to make significant progress toward a nuclear-free world through a series of treaties, agreements, and initiatives. But after the bitter and grueling Senate fight over the New START nuclear reductions agreement with Russia, all congressional action on arms control has ground to a halt.

The administration can rightly claim a win because New START was ultimately ratified. But to many the ratification seemed like a Pyrrhic victory, killing the appetite on Capitol Hill and in the White House for another long battle over an international arms control treaty. "I suggest we move away from the distraction of an agreement like this and move toward a debate over some of the real challenges," Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said bitterly after New START passed. He added that a positive result of the debate was that there won't be any more treaties "for a while."

Arms control officials, such as Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, promise that the administration intends to push for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty -- but no administration official will say when and no congressional action is expected on either of these agreements before the 2012 election. Negotiations with Russia over a follow-up to New START are also going nowhere.

To make matters worse, the administration's main GOP ally in this effort, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) is preparing for a potentially contentious primary campaign and is therefore in no mood to offer an olive branch to Obama on arms control. The drive to "Global Zero," therefore, is likely to remain off the congressional agenda for the foreseeable future.

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Law of the Sea

Don't worry; it's not going to be anarchy on the high seas, but the Navy, several successive administrations, and large parts of the national security community have been pushing for over a decade for Senate ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, known in Washington as the Law of the Sea Treaty -- which, ironically, has the acronym LOST. The treaty codifies navigation rules and some mineral rights issues in international waters, including establishing the borders of various countries' exclusive economic zones. President George W. Bush made a ratification push in 2006, but the treaty never reached the Senate floor.

Now, with treaty signatories like Russia and China using the agreement to chart out stakes on the ocean floor, especially in the Arctic, a new push for ratification is heating up. The effort is led by Kerry, who is ever eager to polish his résumé to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, a small but dedicated contingent of Senate Republicans is promising to do anything it can to thwart ratification of LOST, led by Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). As with New START, Kerry and the administration will argue that this treaty has widespread military support -- but the GOP opposition will insist it subjugates U.S. sovereignty to the international community.

Official U.S. Navy Imagery via Flickr Creative Commons 

Free Trade

This one should have been simple. Free trade was supposed to be the one international issue that both the Obama administration and congressional Republicans could agree on. But now, over two-and-a-half years into the administration, Congress has yet to pass a free trade deal because Democrats and Republicans can't agree on how to compensate domestic workers who might lose out.

Thursday, Senate leaders announced they had finally agreed to a procedure to bring the three most urgent free trade bills -- with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama -- to a vote. Until now progress has been nonexistent because Democrats and the administration want to link free trade agreements with renewal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which provides aid and training to workers who have lost their jobs due to outsourcing. Republicans, many of whom are opposed to the TAA, want to delink the two issues.

Under an agreement announced by Senate leaders Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Thursday, the Senate will first bring up the TAA, and then the trade deals, in September. Whether the Senate will be able to agree on a compromise on the TAA is unknown. On top of that, in the House there is GOP opposition to the TAA and Democratic opposition to the trade deals themselves, further complicating the picture. If the deals ever come to a final vote, they are expected to pass. But despite some movement, Congress is still a long way from actually completing any new agreements on free trade.



Sensitive Exports

As part of his plan to revitalize the U.S. economy, Obama promised to drastically increase U.S. exports. But to "win the future," there needs to be comprehensive reform of the rules under which some high-tech American goods like high-performance computers and machine tools can be exported, including to whom they can be sold. But despite its clear economic benefits, export control reform is simply not near the top of anyone's agenda in Congress.

The national export control regime, which regulates the export of sensitive technologies, hasn't seen real reform since the Export Administration Act was last rewritten in 1979. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has a bill that would alter the list of dual-use technologies -- those export items that have both military and civilian uses -- to reflect the fact that technology and the marketplace have changed a little bit over the last 30 years. His Republican counterpart, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), also has her own bill, which is more focused on protecting national security as export laws are updated. The White House has embarked on a process led by Mike Froman, the National Security Council's senior director for international economics, who is trying to build consensus within the interagency process, but so far no progress has been announced.

Although everyone agrees the current outdated policies are a problem, the bandwidth needed to solve this issue just doesn't seem to exist at the moment.


Foreign-aid Reform

Everyone agrees that the foreign aid system is broken. Over-outsourcing, poor monitoring, and a lack of cohesion and accountability have plagued the U.S. aid system for decades. However, nobody in Congress agrees on exactly how to fix it.

Back in early 2010, there were a lot of good ideas being thrown around. Kerry proposed in a State Department authorization bill to strengthen the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Lugar made big speeches about the need to keep diplomacy and development as distinct disciplines within the government. Meanwhile, the State Department took two years to craft a landmark Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review that sought to join diplomacy and development together bureaucratically and conceptually. Congress and the State Department had different visions on how diplomacy and development should work together, but at least they were both working on the problem.

The November 2010 midterm elections, which brought the GOP to power in the House, dashed many of these grandiose plans. The GOP gains meant that the money needed to reform the aid system and fund new programs vanished. The budget hawks led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately promised to slash aid budgets. Leading Republicans also changed the terms of the aid debate, focusing on the question of whether the United States should give money to problematic allies and complicated territories -- most notably Pakistan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority.

In today's climate, foreign-aid advocates now spend all their time defending their existing programs rather than working on reform and expansion of aid. Meanwhile, the House GOP continues to try to thwart programs, though it doesn't have the power to do so by itself because its one-sided, partisan bills have no chance of becoming law. The result is a nasty stalemate -- a familiar feature in Congress as the country heads into the 2012 presidential season.


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The Sweet Smell of Schadenfreude

The world is crowing over America's near-economic meltdown.

Neither the left nor the right is particularly happy about the deal that was passed this week to avert a U.S. default -- memorably described by one congressman as a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich." Overseas, the reactions to Washington's dysfunction have ranged from confusion, to concern, to barely contained gloating. 


As the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, China's interest in the debt ceiling debate was hardly academic. State wire service Xinhua expressed its dismay at the potential of a default in the run-up to the final debt decisions, calling the political brinkmanship in Washington "dangerously irresponsible" in an editorial last week and noting that the "ugliest part of the saga is that the well-being of many other countries is also in the impact zone when the donkey and the elephant fight."

But now that Democrats and Republicans have come to an agreement, Xinhua hardly seems satisfied with the conclusion, enlisting American economist Dan Steinbock who writes, "Despite all the hype and drama," the deal is "unlikely to avert the downgrading of US credit rating."

The state-sponsored paper Global Times takes a bigger picture view, editorializing on how the -debate has already negatively affected U.S. standing in the world. "The US is well-known for promoting rules and regulations to other countries, but now countries are increasingly realizing Washington can stamp all over its own rules and regulations," the editors write. 

The piece goes on to speculate that U.S. instability could lead the country to lash out militarily at its rivals. "When the country prospers, it will use more civilized methods to secure its national priorities, but when it faces a crisis, it will use all methods to defend itself."

And as a final turn of the screw, the United States is made to look like an unruly, wayward child -- the editors lament that "the US debt China holds is too small to have any major leverage" and suggest that China needs "more patience and wisdom to acquire the capability to deal with the US."

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


You know you're in trouble when even the losers start picking on you. Piling on, the debt-ridden economies of Europe -- the so-called "PIGS" -- have responded to the United States' near failure to get its fiscal house in order. The Greek broadsheet Ekathimerini writes that the United States today "displays all the signs of decadence that condemned all previous superpowers: Stability and prosperity allowed small groups to gather disproportionate power, and they then forced the state to serve their interests at the expense of those of society as a whole." Much like Greece, the editors write, the United States is now "paying the price of complacency."

The Irish may still love Barack Obama but Lara Marlowe, Washington correspondent for the Irish Times, writes that despite the deal, "the damage to Obama's reputation and to faith in the ability of the US to lead a global economic recovery may be irreparable". Bemoaning the U.S. president's failure to stand-up to the Tea Party, Marlowe writes that "as the country surveyed the smouldering detritus of the debt crisis yesterday, the Tea Party stood triumphant in the ashes."

In Spain, where recent street protests over high unemployment recently brought the government to a standstill, El País argues that, "The United States is now in the same basic trap as the Old Continent," forced to enact harsh austerity measures in order to reduce the deficit, but hampering economic growth in the process. The deal "transmits the message that the policies proposed by the radical core of the Republican Party, the Tea Party, will be an obstacle for crisis management in Washington," the editors conclude.

Alkis Konstantinidis/AFP/Getty Images


Most world leaders have been fairly tight-lipped about the deal, given that their economies are so dependent on the U.S. market. A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, would only say that the German government was "satisfied that there has been an agreement in this difficult question in the United States." But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has generally done things his own way:

"[The United States] lives beyond its means, taxing the global economy with its problems and living like a parasite off the global economy and the monopoly of the dollar," Putin told a meeting of the nationalist youth group Nashi this week, echoing the sort of language once used to describe capitalists in Soviet-era propaganda. This came after remarks last month in which Putin branded the U.S. government "hooligans" for printing money. All the same, after getting his licks in the prime minister welcomed the final agreement, saying that a U.S. default would have been "no good at all" for the world economy.

The newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta believed that the U.S. crisis helped put Russia's dire economic problems in perspective, writing, "[There is] one unfortunate thing that Russia does not need to fear: at least, it will not face a default in the next few days." Cold comfort indeed.



Perhaps it's not surprising, what with near double-digit GDP growth in India, that American decline is on the minds of the country's commentators today. The Hindustan Times editorializes that "If routine has become Armageddon, the US cannot be counted on when the tough decisions are being made." That may have security implications, in addition to economic ones. While the current round of budget cuts may be severe, the editors worry more about what will happen to the U.S. defense infrastructure if Republicans and Democrats cannot agree to a second round of cuts, which would trigger $1.2 trillion worth of security cuts: "[S]uch cuts would eviscerate US defence capability. The US would be a greatly reduced superpower, one with little leeway if bits of the world go rancid or sour. Among other things, it would mean a China with more space to expand its military influence than it probably has capacity to fill. It will also mean large chunks of ocean and remoter bits of the world, presently policed or at least contained by the U.S., would be allowed to run wild." Sounds like a call to India's politicians for a ramp-up in defense preparations.

And apparently the world's largest democracy has some lessons for Congress. Columnist Mihir Sharma in an Indian Express op-ed takes aim at the most august of American institutions: "The United States is the home of what Americans like to say is the world's greatest constitution, but is in fact the world's most outdated." Sharma argues that a document "written for an age before railroads, let alone before cable news" has led to the current crisis. Tricorner-hat-wearing Tea Partiers would probably disagree.  



The British press has been characteristically brutal in its assessment of both Republicans' intransigence and Obama's failure to stand up to their demands. The Independent writes in its lead editorial that while "Armageddon has been averted … as long as a generation of Republican politicians feel entitled to hold a gun to the head of the credit of America to secure their political ends -- disaster will never be far away."

Guardian economic editor Larry Elliott compares the United States to a "tinpot Latin American dictatorship circa 1980" and calls it a "country where a plutocracy is firmly in control," suggesting that "If the U.S. were any other country it would be seeking help from the International Monetary Fund." In the same paper, writer and activist George Monbiot writes that the Tea Party "consists of people who have been harmed by tax cuts for the rich and spending cuts for the poor" amd who have been misled by corporate owned media. But Monbiot also senses another evil lurking: The current state of affairs in Congress is "a kind of political coup," he writes. "A handful of billionaires have shoved a spanner into the legislative process."

In the Telegraph, Toby Young notes the irony that the Democratic U.S. president now appears to be leaning to the right of the British Conservatives: "A year ago, American conservatives were showering David Cameron with praise for adopting such a radical approach to reducing Britain's deficit and contrasting him unfavourably with their own spendthrift President. Now, our Prime Minister looks like a weak-kneed liberal in contrast to the hard-headed Obama." Young believes that on both sides of the pond, a "sea change has taken place" and that "Socialist welfare programmes have become politically toxic." 

Last year, it was the normally free-market United States that was taken aback by the harshness of British and European budget cuts. Things appear to have returned to normal.

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