Thursday, March 28, 2013

Congress Rolls Over for the Imperial Presidency

Retiring Senator Jim Webb blasts the steady increase in the president's power over foreign policy, and the steady abdication of Congressional authority:
Congress has become largely irrelevant to the shaping, execution and future of our foreign policy. Detailed PowerPoint briefings may be given by colonels and generals in the “battle zones.” Adversarial confrontations might mark certain congressional hearings. Reports might be demanded. Passionate speeches might be made on the floor of the House and the Senate. But on the issues of who should decide when and where to use force and for how long, and what our country’s long-term relations should consist of in the aftermath, Congress is mostly tolerated and frequently ignored. The few exceptions come when certain members are adamant in their determination to stop something from happening, but even then they do not truly participate in the shaping of policy.
As examples Webb offers the "Strategic Framework Agreements" negotiated by G.W. Bush with the Iraqi government and by Obama with Afghanistan. The Iraqi agreement
addressed a broad range of issues designed to shape the future relationship between the United States and Iraq. This was not quite a treaty, which would have required debate on the Senate floor and the approval of sixty-seven senators, but neither was it a typical executive-branch negotiation designed to implement current policy and law. Included in the SFA, as summarized in a 2008 document published by the Council on Foreign Relations, were provisions outlining “the U.S. role in defending Iraq from internal and external threats; U.S. support of political reconciliation; and U.S. efforts to confront terrorist groups,” as well as measures “shaping future cooperation on cultural, energy, economic, environmental, and other issues of mutual interest.”

Despite years of combat in Iraq, the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars of national treasure and deep divisions that remained in the American body politic regarding our future role in this tumultuous region, over the period of more than a year during which the Iraqi SFA was negotiated and finalized, Congress was not consulted in any meaningful way. Once the document was finalized, Congress was not given an opportunity to debate the merits of the agreement, which was specifically designed to shape the structure of our long-term relations in Iraq. Nor, importantly, did the congressional leadership even ask to do so.
Ditto the Afghanistan agreement, which Webb had to read in a secure briefing room and was not allowed to copy, even though it was not secret; according to the log he signed, he was the only Senator actually to read this document, which binds the US to defend the Kabul regime indefinitely.

As I have said before, no president is going to willingly abdicate the powers seized by Bush and maintained by Obama. They will only let Congress have its say if Congress insists on it. But Congress seems to have no interest in doing this, and that probably won't happen until we find ourselves in the midst of another Vietnam. It's all rather discouraging for a believer in democracy.

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