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Congress Develops Its Own Foreign Policy

By Peter Brown

Once upon a time in Washington, D.C. there was an informal agreement that partisan political differences within the United States did not extend to America's dealings with the rest of the world.

Congress' current attempt to offer its own foreign policy marks the end of that doctrine, which, truth be told, has been on life support for some time.

How one sees this development almost certainly depends on his or her view of President George W. Bush, but clearly the once-universally accepted notion that America speaks with one voice, that of the president, to foreign nations, is no more.

The informal agreement that once existed between the two political parties not to offer conflicting signals to America's friends and foes is another casualty of the "D.C. disease" that has made bipartisan cooperation on virtually everything an anachronism.

In fact, as the Washington Post, hardly a Republican mouthpiece, recently editorialized, the Democratic Congress seems intent on developing its own foreign policy.


* Congress has publicly told the world that it, not the president, makes foreign policy. Both the House and Senate have passed versions of spending bills that limit Bush's power to wage war and force the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

* House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the nation's highest ranking Democrat, rejected White House pleas to follow Bush's policy against any high-level contacts with Syria, a country he says sponsors terrorism.

* Steny Hoyer, the House's second-ranking Democrat, did much the same in meeting with the leader of Egypt's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, whom U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has refused to meet.

Of course these developments are not the first to demonstrate that the notion of a bipartisan foreign policy has gone the way of the dinosaur. During the Vietnam-era and the Cold War there were obvious policy differences between the two parties. But, for the most part, Democratic and Republican leaders gave lip service to the ideal of the president speaking for America.

Two decades ago, it would have been impossible to imagine House Speaker Tip O'Neill, every bit the Democratic partisan as is Pelosi today, meeting a foreign leader against Ronald Reagan's wishes.

Whether Congress can accomplish anything other than demonstrating to the rest of the world the internal divisions that exist within D.C.'s halls of power is unclear.

Bush has pledged to veto any measure which would set a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq and his opponents are far short of the votes to override him.

Neither the Pelosi nor the Hoyer trips are likely to change U.S. policy, especially toward Syria, which has been implicated in the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.

But that is not the point; the Democrats understand Bush's ability to veto their legislation, or denounce their trips. They are just making sure everyone - from Moscow, Idaho to Moscow, Russia -- knows they have their own foreign policy.

All of this begs the question of whether an outspoken role for the U.S. political party that does not hold the White House in dealing with the rest of the world is permanent, and good for the country.

Democrats argue that Bush politicized the war on terror and the war on Iraq, trying to cast those who disagreed with him as wrong-headed if not unpatriotic, and they are just responding now that they control Congress.

They are doing this because the United States does not have had a parliamentary system like many European countries, in which a majority of lawmakers can effectively force the chief executive to resign and call a new election. If America had that system, then lawmakers could effectively force a change in foreign policy.

But the American electoral system gives the president four years to do pretty much what he wants as long as he does not commit an impeachable offense, which is what frustrates the Democrats, and has led to their votes and trips.

The war-limiting legislation and the Democratic trips underscores just how much things have changed. Although hope may spring eternal, it is unlikely we'll see Congress reverting to its historic role in foreign affairs any time soon.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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