Posted on: June 28, 2010 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 0

In the 21st century, Congress has demonstrated both incompetence in handling its limited responsibility in foreign policy, and how disastrous it is when it oversteps its bounds and tries to get more involved in foreign affairs than it should.

Outside of those working actively in foreign policy, it still seems like Americans have not grasped the magnitude of the

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA, seated at the left) prepares to address a pro-Israel rally

foolish decisions to go into Afghanistan and Iraq. But, for reasons that did not include a clear and sober calculation of American security or even geo-political interests, Bush, Cheney, and their neo-conservative cohorts did, in fact, put us back into a Vietnam-like quagmire.

But this one is worse. Vietnam was predicated on the “domino theory,” which dictated that the fall of a country in Southeast Asia of relatively minor importance would set off a chain reaction and lead to more crucial countries falling to Communism. Once the theory was discarded, it was possible, even if not so simple, to extricate ourselves from the war.

That’s not the case in either Afghanistan or Iraq, particularly the latter. Iraq, a major oil producer, could easily fall under the control or influence of foreign powers, including Iran, which would significantly affect the global economy and the global balance of power. Afghanistan has always been a center of instability, but the American intervention has embroiled Pakistan more deeply in the conflicts there, and the threat of Afghani issues destabilizing Pakistan, a nuclear power, is very real. In both cases, these are merely singular examples among many other serious concerns.

No, America cannot just up and leave the Middle East as it did Southeast Asia. America also has very little to gain from staying, but must do so to avoid the consequences of leaving. That’s where the Neoconservatives have left the US. Making such clearly foolish mistakes in when and where to go to war is precisely why (among other reasons) Congress is the only body authorized to declare war.

But Congress abdicated its responsibility in the hunger for revenge after 9/11. Both because of being swept up in that frenzy and because most members of Congress really aren’t very well-versed in foreign policy, there was no brake to the mad rush to war of the Neocons, despite dire warnings, especially against invading Iraq, from a broad spectrum of Middle East scholars and experts.

The poor grasp of foreign policy in Congress is understandable. Congress members have many issues to deal with, and domestic ones are generally much more important politically than foreign policy. There are many very good aides in congressional offices, but in the end, they will be the first to tell you that domestic politics are much more important than strategic interests in determining their bosses’ stances. In general, a controversial foreign policy stance has a lot more potential cost than potential benefit, whereas domestic issues much more often present potential political benefits on both sides.

In the early part of the 21st century, Congress took the easy road and stayed out of President Bush’s way when he wanted to drag the country into two disastrous wars. Right now, as it has been for decades, Congress again takes the easy road and blindly defends Israeli action in an attempt to get President Obama to ease the pressure on Israel.

MJ Rosenberg illustrates this: “Take Sen. Chuck Schumer, for example.  Watch him discuss domestic issues.  Note how much he seems to have studied them (although he sometimes reaches the wrong conclusions). Notice how happily engaged he is when talking about them. Then watch him talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Not only is he ignorant of the facts, the history, and the changes in the contours of the issue, he seems not to care at all.  He is going through the motions. Schumer does not care enough about Israel to expend any political (or real) capital on it.  He’ll

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY)

just say what he thinks he has to say and quickly move on to issues he does care about, issues that he thinks relate directly to the lives of Americans.”

That’s the real problem, and it was one our government was supposed to be set up to prevent. Foreign policy is supposed to be enacted and directed by the Executive Branch, with Congress merely acting as a check by holding the purse strings and being the only entity that can declare war. But it doesn’t really work that way.

And the trouble is that Congress is simply not qualified to manage foreign policy. When it should have acted as a deterrent, it shirked its responsibility. But when it comes to Israel, Congress takes a very active role for which it does not have sufficient expertise.

Israel and its various conflicts have long ago become domestic issues. And while most Americans do not rank it high on their list of voting priorities, those that do have brought a good deal of money and, perhaps more important, political activism to their efforts.

The result is that a matter where policy should be determined by the concerns of geo-politics and diplomacy is subject, more consistently and powerfully than any other foreign policy issue, to domestic political concerns. That is not a healthy situation for the United States, and it is also unhealthy for Israelis and Palestinians.

As B’nai Brith, of all organizations, unwittingly revealed, Israelis realize, and accept, that American pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians is necessary and even desirable if peace is ever to be achieved. But Congress, at the behest of such groups as AIPAC and Christians United for Israel (CUFI) ends up trying to dictate when the President should apply such pressure. Under the guise of claiming that “Israel should be able to handle its own business,” Congress puts its own political interests over the desires of the Israeli people (that they would give any consideration to the desires of the Palestinian people is simply not part of the Washington discourse).

Israel is not, of course, the only foreign policy issue that has come under the sway of domestic political concerns. Cuba is an obvious example, and others have also become so for time (South Africa and Central American in the 80s, for instance). But no other foreign policy issue has been so much a part of domestic politics for such an extended period of time.

There is a small industry around the issue of Israel, so it is unlikely that this state of affairs will change any time soon. And that’s why it is so vitally important that greater effort be made to counter the influence of the AIPACs and CUFIs with public relations, with aggressive lobbying and with campaign contributions. J Street and its associated PAC is a good start, but it needs to spawn other PACs, and more people need to make the effort to bring out a message not only of peace, but of how to get there. Until that happens, even a President with the best of intentions will find his (or her) hands tied.