Congress Steps Up on Foreign Policy

Congress Steps Up on Foreign Policy

When President Trump began taking a wrecking ball to some of America’s traditional foreign policies, going so far as to threaten the country’s long and sturdy relationship with its Western European allies, many hoped that the other branches of government would provide a counterweight to the executive branch, and restrain his worst impulses.

The federal courts helped by slamming the brakes on Mr. Trump’s travel ban against several Muslim-majority countries. Now the Republican-led Congress, especially the Senate, is beginning to assert itself on national security issues in a mostly constructive manner.

Last week, the Senate provided reassurance to European allies jittery about America’s commitment to NATO by voting unanimously to affirm Article 5, the 68-year-old alliance’s core mutual defense provision. Mr. Trump denigrated NATO during his campaign and refused to embrace Article 5 during his recent European trip.

As Mr. Trump continued to display indifference, even hostility, to findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to strengthen sanctions against Russia. For too long, Republican leaders had indulged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s pleadings to delay a sanctions vote while he attempted to forge a new relationship with his Russian counterpart, a dubious proposition.

It’s obviously in everyone’s interest for the United States to find areas of cooperation with Moscow; Russia is a major power and the only country with a nuclear arsenal comparable to America’s. But there has been no sign that Mr. Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil chairman and chief executive with close ties to the Kremlin, has won any concession that suggests Moscow is willing to end its aggressive behavior and engage seriously with Washington.

Russia’s mischief knows few boundaries. The country is still destabilizing Ukraine, using its military force to defend President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, undermining democracy across Europe and trying to woo vulnerable NATO members in Eastern Europe to its side.

Reports that Mr. Tillerson wants to work with Russia on cybersecurity issues seem especially premature, not least because the Kremlin hasn’t admitted to hacking the Democratic campaign as well as the actual voting data in nearly 40 states.

Given the absence of any real progress, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was quite right to move forward with the sanctions bill, which passed the full Senate by a vote of 97 to 2. It would add sanctions and allow Congress to block presidential efforts to reduce existing sanctions. That is a necessary precaution given that Mr. Trump’s fondness for President Vladimir Putin could cause him to prematurely lift the penalties imposed for the invasion of Ukraine and meddling in the American election.

In another effort to correct a bad decision by Mr. Trump, the Senate tried to block a $500 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which on Wednesday underwent a major leadership shuffle in the ruling royal family. The arms sale makes the United States complicit with the Saudis in the civil war in Yemen, which has killed untold numbers of civilians. The measure failed, but received more support than it had in the past.

And after dragging its feet for years, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday began considering legislation intended to assert more power over military troop deployments. The president has largely ceded that authority to the Pentagon. Meanwhile, many legislators have vowed not to approve Mr. Trump’s budget, which would decimate the State Department. On a more granular level, a few senators have taken it upon themselves to smooth the ruffled feathers between Mr. Trump and foreign leaders.

To some extent, these battles are simply the latest manifestation of the long historical struggle for control over national security policy between the executive and legislative branches.

The Constitution divides war-making between the Congress, which controls taxes and spending, and the president, who is vested with executive power and the power to act as the military’s commander in chief.

Since 9/11, there has been a striking expansion of the president’s executive power, particularly in the area of national security, and there is little doubt that the executive, in this case Mr. Trump, remains the most influential player on the world stage. But that does not mean that Congress has to remain silent, or shy from challenging any president on national security issues, correcting or mitigating mistakes that could threaten the nation.

There is even a hint of bipartisanship in this particular Congress’s efforts to compensate for this particular executive. That, too, is a good thing.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com

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