US foreign policy: bringing in the people

IT becomes necessary from time to time to remind presidents and the people who work for them of the difference between making and conducting foreign policy. The distinction tends to get blurred in presidential thinking, but it is really quite clear. And very important. You make a policy when you decide what you want to do - for example, support the Nicaraguan contras. You conduct a policy when you do what you have decided - for example, send guns to the contras.

The conduct of foreign policy is necessarily an executive function, in which the president is preeminent. But the president is only one of the participants in the making of foreign policy. Presidents characteristically do not like this, and none has liked it less than Ronald Reagan.

The making of a policy ought to be the subject of thorough and wide-ranging public debate in Congress, in the media, and elsewhere. The more controversial the policy, the more desirable this debate becomes and the greater the challenge it presents to the president's abilities as a political leader. It is a paradox that Mr. Reagan, who in terms of getting votes is the greatest leader of all, has been unwilling to subject so many of his foreign policies to the test of public debate. He fashioned a White House staff which shut out not only the public, not only Congress, but even the State Department, and which even now professes to see nothing wrong in this.

The president, in this view, is all-powerful. The congressional role is to provide appropriations, and the public's role is not to ask questions - to take no interest in details, as Admiral Poindexter put it.

This view is not only profoundly at odds with the Constitution; it is plain stupid from the president's point of view. One can only wonder that as good a politician as Reagan would fall into such egregious error.

Lincoln warned against trying to fool all the people all the time. Sooner or later bits and pieces of secret policies become public, and then the whole fabric unravels and a president has brought more trouble on himself than a public debate would have caused in the first place.

Of course, a public debate might leave the president with less than he wanted; he might have to compromise some of his policy objectives. From the point of view of the national interest, this is another reason to have the debate. But presidents tend to find it distasteful. Presidents tend to equate the national interest with their own view of things. This is particularly true of Reagan, who brings a rare ideological fervor to his policymaking. This conviction of rightness makes compromise more painful and makes it easier to argue that the end justifies any means.

The Reagan attitude about foreign- policy making is new only in the sense that it is more extreme than presidents have typically held. Most presidents have regarded Congress more as an obstacle to be overcome, or as a skeptic to be convinced, than as a partner. This view also permeates the executive branch bureaucracy, which tends to approach Congress as a used-car salesman would approach a gullible prospect. When a president calls for bipartisanship, what he means is that Congress is supposed to support his policy; it never occurs to him that it would also be bipartisan for him to give something to Congress. (Senator Vandenberg had enough stature to get some concessions out of the Truman administration in the name of bipartisanship, but it doesn't happen often.)

Most of the time, it is in a president's political self-interest to have a cooperative rather than a confrontational relationship with Congress, especially with respect to foreign policy. Truman was reelected in 1948 by running against the 80th Congress on domestic issues, something that infuriated Vandenberg, because that Congress had been cooperative on foreign policy.

Reagan is so jealous of his presumed powers that he almost forces Congress to be confrontational. This goes beyond arms sales to Iran and secret aid to the contras. It has been difficult to get any meaningful consultation about the Persian Gulf because the President is afraid that might somehow confer some validity on the War Powers Resolution or might otherwise dilute his powers as commander in chief.

Vandenberg once delivered an aphorism that Congress had to be in on the takeoff if it was also going to be in on the crash landing. The President should also be reminded that if Congress is in on the takeoff, it is less likely to investigate the crash landing. Even more important, if Congress is in early enough, there might not be a crash landing.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.