A History of Foreign Policy Tussles
"I have a gavel and I have a microphone."
That seems to have been U.S. Rep. John Boehner's response to President Barack Obama's phone-and-pen approach to governance when the speaker invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress next month. Netanyahu will present Israel's views on nuclear negotiations with Iran and on the growing threat of Islamist terrorism - issues on which a bipartisan Congress and the administration have widely divergent views.
The White House has complained that Boehner did not consult with the executive before taking a deep dive into sensitive international diplomacy, thereby breaching protocol and trespassing onto presidential prerogatives. Boehner denies that he is "putting a thumb in anyone's eye," but the speaker has expressed his annoyance at Obama's unilateral executive actions in both domestic and foreign policy - actions taken often in direct defiance of Congressional sentiment. Boehner criticized Obama's State of the Union speech as lacking seriousness regarding the threats from Iran and radical Islam.
Members of Congress from both parties see Obama's treatment of Congressional concerns as cavalier, and some may feel that turnabout is fair play. In any event, it is hardly the first time the legislative branch has responded vigorously to a foreign policy action it finds objectionable, especially when it perceives the executive as tossing aside the interests of a loyal American ally.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter suddenly announced that the United States recognized the People's Republic of China and would terminate diplomatic and defense relations with the Republic of China in Taiwan. An outraged Congress quickly mobilized to pass the Taiwan Relations Act, which preserved quasi-official relations with Taiwan and committed the United States to continue to provide weapons for Taiwan's defense against China. Overwhelming majorities of Democrats and Republicans supported the legislation, in defiance of Carter's veto threat. The TRA has undergirded Washington's policy toward China and Taiwan ever since.
In 1995, Congress again rose to action after a perceived presidential slight of Taiwan. Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui had requested a visa to attend his Cornell reunion. China objected and President Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, assured Beijing that Lee would not be allowed to make the trip. By votes of 360 to 0 in the House, and 96 to 1 in the Senate, Congress passed joint resolutions urging the administration to issue Lee the necessary visa.
The State Department reversed its decision, Lee traveled to Cornell, and Beijing erupted in anger, firing missiles across the Taiwan Strait. It took the dispatch of two U.S. carrier groups to calm the situation. Today, the Obama administration warns Congress that its threat of additional sanctions against Iran will "explode" the international nuclear negotiations. Similarly, the president resists congressional calls for a more robust intervention against the Islamic State and Bashar al Assad in Syria out of fear of becoming mired in another conflict in the Middle East.
Sometimes the policy roles are reversed, and it is Congress that wants to end a presidential commitment to a former ally. That is what happened in 1973 when Congress cut off U.S. military support to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, overriding the objections of the Watergate-embattled President, Richard Nixon. Those countries soon fell to the North Vietnamese army.
History teaches that congressional action and presidential inaction have consequences - and that closer good-faith consultation and coordination between the branches can mitigate some of them.