Welcome, Know-Nothings

The new Congress is a bunch of ignoramuses when it comes to foreign policy. And, frankly, that's probably a good thing right now.

The 113th Congress has just been sworn in, and it's a safe bet that it will be no more engaged with foreign policy, and no more competent to serve as a useful check on the Obama administration, than was its predecessor. This is mostly a prerogative of the opposition, and congressional Republicans have paid remarkably little attention to President Barack Obama's conduct of foreign affairs. Last month, they roused themselves to block confirmation of a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled, which apparently posed a grave threat to the nation's sovereignty. In recent weeks, of course, the GOP has lashed itself into a fury over the September 11 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, laboring to gin up a tragic mishap into a full-fledged scandal. But on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, China, and the war on terror -- not much. Really, it's been a blessing.

It has not always been so, of course. While foreign policy, unlike domestic policy, does not normally depend on legislation or congressional authorization, thus giving far greater latitude to the executive branch, presidents have often had to face stiff resistance from Congress. President Lyndon Johnson provoked a storm of opposition on Capitol Hill when he escalated the Vietnam War; William Fulbright, a fellow Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), impaneled a series of hearings that showcased devastating critiques of Johnson's conduct of the war. Politicians on both sides of the aisle believed that Johnson had hoodwinked them into supporting the Gulf of Tonkin resolution enabling the escalation; many of them vowed never again to automatically defer to the president's authority to conduct foreign policy. 

In the mid-1970s, Democratic Senator Frank Church conducted spectacular hearings into the CIA's history of assassinations. Republicans fought President Jimmy Carter every step of the way on his human rights policy and support for left-leaning regimes in Latin America. When Ronald Reagan reversed Carter's policies in order to back anti-Communist insurgents, a Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Boland Amendment banning military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. It was this prohibition that Reagan tried to evade with the elaborate subterfuge known as Iran-Contra -- which was itself fully exposed to the public in the Senate's weeks-long Iran-Contra hearings that made Oliver North a household name. Had President Richard Nixon's impeachment not been fresh in everyone's minds, Democrats might well have moved to impeach Reagan over the lies required to conduct a secret foreign policy.

The election of 1994, which swept conservatives to power, marked the demise of the centrist tradition in foreign (and domestic) policy. Jesse Helms, the new Republican chairman of the SFRC, wanted to get rid of the U.N., which he did his best to defund, and did not much like foreign countries (though he did his best to keep Rhodesia in white hands). It was mortifying to try to explain to foreigners how such a yahoo had come to exercise so much influence over U.S. foreign policy. Still, even Helms was prepared to make deals with Joe Biden, the committee's senior Democrat. "Helms was perfectly happy to have a strongly assertive role for Congress in foreign policy," says Norman Ornstein, the congressional sage who hangs his battered hat at the American Enterprise Institute.

That may cast a slightly generous retrospective glow on "Cousin Jesse," who mostly seemed to want a strongly assertive role for himself. But what is certainly true is that senior Republicans like Bob Dole still considered foreign policy an essential element of their job (though even Dole shamelessly pandered to the know-nothing right when he ran for president in 1996, lampooning U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali as if he were a cartoon character). Some of these figures continued to serve up to the present, the most obvious example being Richard Lugar, the just-replaced ranking Republican on SFRC and a leading authority on arms control. Lugar was defeated in a primary by a far-right conservative, which certainly sends a message to any Republican thinking of making a name for himself as a player -- that is, a non-obstructive one -- on international affairs.  

Ornstein argues that the big change in recent years is that today's generation of yahoos, who view government itself with contempt, have little interest in defending Congress's institutional role. He views the debate over the disability treaty, where members thronged around a wheelchair-bound Bob Dole before voting down the treaty he had come to endorse -- a treaty that mostly codified U.S. law but was opposed by home-schoolers -- as a low point. "That kind of obstruction means almost willfully obviating a serious role for the Senate," Ornstein says. "That suggests to a president that if you can find any way to accomplish your goals through executive action, you should."

I think that's part, but not all, of the problem. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have drained public faith that the United States can and should do good in the world, leading to a surly mood toward foreign policy on the left as well as the right and stirring up the nativism that is never far from the surface of American life. It has long been true that a politician can make waves by attacking the U.N., but can only hurt himself by defending it; now the same has increasingly become true of foreign policy itself. Serious figures in both parties today steer clear of the foreign relations committees. If John Kerry does become secretary of state, the new SFRC chairman will be Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American whose international portfolio to date consists largely of hostility to the Castro regime. And the defeat of Howard Berman, a bipartisan figure whose active role on international affairs left him vulnerable to a Republican challenger, leaves Eliot Engel, no heavyweight, as the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On the positive side, the chairmanship of the committee has passed from Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another Cuban-American, who championed deep cuts in foreign aid and State Department spending, to Ed Royce, generally considered a moderate.

But the Republicans have a very specific problem of their own: They can't make a serious dent in Barack Obama's foreign policy. This is in part because their nativist base doesn't care, but also because by carrying out the war on terror more or less as George W. Bush did, Obama has neutralized the traditional argument that Democrats are soft on bad guys. Congressional Republicans haven't subjected Obama's prosecution of the war in Afghanistan, or his response to the Arab Spring, to the searching scrutiny that previous presidents have had to endure because they don't have a meaningful alternative to offer. They do, however, exploit whatever small opportunities they can find to cast Obama as a danger to national security -- for example, by blocking any effort to transfer detainees from military prisons.

And this brings us to Benghazi, the great foreign-policy "debate" of 2012. The furor over the deaths of Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans, which has lead to multiple congressional investigations, has almost nothing to do with broad questions of policy and everything to do with probing for weak spots in Obama's armor. The fact that the assault has been led by John McCain, the GOP's most respected spokesman on foreign affairs, only makes its triviality more appalling. McCain seems to have an Ahab-like obsession with Obama, or at least with Obama-as-commander in chief. Benghazi is his harpoon.

The hullaballoo over Benghazi has proved embarrassing even to serious conservatives. Gary Schmitt, a national security expert at AEI, agrees that very few Republicans now care about either foreign policy or Congress's role in shaping it. And he acknowledges that McCain and others have drawn no attention to what he himself considers the deep story on Benghazi: Obama's unwillingness to shoulder the burden of "nation-building and deep engagement" in the Middle East, his self-evident wish to put the whole mess behind him, and the cold shoulder he has turned to the insurgents in Syria. "There should be a debate about whether we're going to let Iraq define policy for the next 20 years," Schmitt says. "But nobody seems to be joining in that debate."

Presidents need to be pushed back by an active, if not obstreperous, Congress -- a fact that Democrats learned only after years of timidly acquiescing to Bush's Global War On Terror. Today's congressional Republicans will do almost anything they can to make President Obama fail, but they can't be bothered to devise a practical alternative to his policies, foreign or domestic.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Hope Against Hope

A look back at what I've gotten wrong, and why I'm (mostly) not sorry.

Last week, I wrote about the lessons that President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team have learned -- or should have learned -- from their mistakes over the last four years. The civilian side of government, I noted, doesn't have a "lessons learned" apparatus the way the military does. It should, but then, so should my line of work. Reporters can be called to account for factual errors, but columnists, who traffic in opinion, need not even acknowledge the category of "mistake." It is largely up to us to blow the whistle on ourselves. And this is what I propose to do this week.

In looking back through my columns of the past three years, I had no trouble coming up with my most egregious misjudgment: A year ago, on the eve of Egypt's parliamentary elections, I wrote that while Egypt's new government "may have a strongly Islamic cast, it won't actually be Islamic," since experts were predicting that the Muslim Brotherhood would win 15 to 40 percent of seats, with the rest divided among various forces, including Salafists. In fact, the Brotherhood and the Salafists took three-quarters of the seats in Egypt's new parliament.

But that's just electoral math. My deeper misjudgment was to think that, once in power, the Brotherhood would take democracy as seriously as they had while serving as a parliamentary minority under President Hosni Mubarak. Instead, Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsy has taken his electoral victory as a mandate to demolish obstacles to his rule -- temporarily, he insists. The most reform-minded members of the Brotherhood have left the fold, but have not themselves become a significant political force. Egypt now faces a spreading politics of confrontation in which no party believes that it can afford to trust to democratic tactics. The situation is utterly fluid and unpredictable, but it is by no means obvious that Egypt's political marketplace will prove self-correcting.

Like any prudent columnist, I have hedged my hopefulness with cautionary notes. But I was too hopeful -- my besetting flaw. I put too much stock in Obama's ability to put a new face on America, which is to say that I shared the somewhat giddy expectations of many people in the administration. When I look back at what I wrote about the counterinsurgency strategy that Obama adopted in Afghanistan, I see that I was too willing to suspend my own skepticism about the civilian side of the policy. In 2010, I suggested, correctly, that "the organic time scale" of governance reform "is just too gradual to match any military timetable Americans will accept."

But then I contradicted myself. Earlier that year, I had spent time with soldiers and civilians in the critical southern district of Arghandab, as well as with officials in Kandahar and Kabul, who "believed that they could make a meaningful difference" by the time troops began to draw down, if only Afghan president Hamid Karzai would stop frustrating their efforts at reform -- a thought which I endorsed. But Karzai was never going to stop being Karzai, and my impulse that the institution-building effort could only work generationally, if at all, was right. I was too susceptible to their hopefulness.

Experience has been a painful teacher -- for the last two administrations, and for those who have invested in their soaring aspirations. And experience has taught us, among other things, that while America can blow things to smithereens, it cannot do nearly as much as it thinks to put them back together: "The world is so much more complicated, and so much more refractory, than we wish it to be; and our wishes all too often govern our understanding." That was me, writing about Iraq -- though it could have applied to plenty of other things. "It behooves us, then, to act with humility," I concluded, "and to try as best we can not to confuse what we wish to be with what can be."

Easier said than done, of course. Still, I have a paragon before me: I am in the midst of writing a biography of John Quincy Adams, a thoroughly astringent soul who, as a diplomat and then as secretary of state, admonished everyone around him of the potential calamities lurking beneath noble prospects. In his famous July 4, 1821 oration -- the one where he warned against going abroad "in search of monsters to destroy" -- Adams predicted that a policy of foreign intervention, even on behalf of the Greeks then struggling for independence from the Ottoman Empire, would corrupt the nation's republican spirit and alter "the fundamental maxims of her policy ... from liberty to force." If I had been around at the time, I'm sure I would have thought, as did Henry Clay and a great many other of the proto-liberal internationalists of the day, that President James Monroe should have spoken up for Greece. Adams persuaded him not to. And Adams did a magnificent job of advancing America's national interests. 

Still, I tend to think of my bias towards hopefulness as not only a glandular condition but a conscious choice. Journalists are afraid -- almost terrified -- of being accused of naiveté. It was, for example, almost an article of faith in the media in 2007 that President George W. Bush's "surge" in Iraq would fail, disastrously; but I don't recall any of the naysayers being taken to task as harshly, for example, as were the sorry folk who predicted in 2003 that regime change would lead to a better, less brutal, Iraq. Courting accusations of naiveté can thus be its own form of journalistic integrity.

Early in the 2008 presidential campaign I wrote an article about Barack Obama's worldview. He had a worldview, I concluded; and it was the right one. Wrong, said my editor: The story is that he has a worldview, and nobody's buying it. That is what it looked like in September 2007. Of course he was the one who was wrong. (But he still made me change the piece.)

I do not, that is, want to be entirely cured of my folly; I am wary of John Quincy Adam's wisdom. Were he around today, Adams would have warned against the intervention in Libya, and would have advised the president to stand by the devils he knew. And yet I'm glad Obama stuck his neck out in Libya and elsewhere, and still wish he would take stronger steps in Syria. Last week, I wrote that Obama's extreme caution in Syria might come from over-learning the lesson of American limits. Pundits can over-learn lessons, too. Peter Beinart, an all-in supporter of the war in Iraq, repented of his folly by writing The Icarus Syndrome, a book that made the idealistic tradition in American foreign policy sound so reckless that he was rebuked in the New York Times Book Review by, of all people, the arch-realist Leslie Gelb. Yes, idealism can breed "hubris"; but it's hard to accomplish fine things without unreasonable expectations. 

Reviewing my 140-odd columns has given me many opportunities for mortification. I haven't even mentioned my extremely premature congratulations to ECOWAS, the West African organization, for restoring democracy in Mali in the aftermath of a coup (though, with Mali's government remaining hapless, the U.N. Security Council has just authorized ECOWAS to oust Islamist rebels from the country's north). It's been a salutary exercise; if I was chastened before, I am yet more so now. We are all more or less chastened after a decade of seeking monsters to destroy. So yes, let us practice humility rather than hubris. Let us lower our expectations. But not too far.