Hostile Territory

By Stephen Sestanovich
Friday, April 24, 2009

Last week, 30 Columbia University graduate students and I spent two long days in meetings with senior officials at the State Department and National Security Council; on Capitol Hill; and with experienced Washington journalists, economists, consultants and lobbyists. Most of us probably expected to come away wondering whether, in its overhaul of American foreign policy, the Obama administration has found a winning strategy for dealing with tough problems such as Iran or North Korea. By the end my conclusion was different. What the president and his team really need is a strategy for dealing with Congress.

Our field trip came three days after President Obama announced his refashioning of Cuba policy. Not surprisingly, my students asked why the changes were so limited, especially since -- as we were frequently told -- the administration believes the U.S. embargo has been "a total failure for decades." Ah, we heard, anything more far-reaching would require action by Congress.

The week before, in Prague, Obama had announced his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. As a crucial first step, he said he would "immediately and aggressively" seek ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to bolster American credibility in trying to keep other states from going nuclear. But on the Hill we heard that the votes aren't there for ratification, that key senators who voted down the treaty 10 years ago may be even more dubious now. Pressed on this, administration officials conceded that "immediate" and "aggressive" action doesn't actually mean "soon" -- not this year, and maybe not in the first half of next year.

Perhaps no Obama policy has excited more enthusiasm abroad than the administration's readiness to negotiate a binding treaty on climate change. My students were reminded, however, that Congress intends to define the new standards that will restrict greenhouse-gas emissions, and the desire to maintain congressional control crosses party lines. Last month almost half of the Senate's Democrats voted to give their Republican colleagues more say in the process -- by agreeing to require a 60-vote supermajority on climate legislation.

The list of issues pitting the president against Congress could be extended. While in Europe, Obama promised Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to "graduate" Russia from the restrictions of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, the Cold War law that tied trade relations to free emigration from the Soviet Union. Although emigration has not been restricted for years, many senators believe that Jackson-Vanik should remain in place until the United States gets something in return -- trade concessions, perhaps, or gestures on human rights.

The budget that Defense Secretary Robert Gates introduced this month may face similar trouble. My students heard a senior official of the previous administration praise Gates for trying to focus the Pentagon on current counterinsurgency operations -- and away from the much smaller risk of war with another major power. But congressional committee chairmen are clearly less happy about the change. The old strategy meant more spending on big weapons systems -- and more manufacturing jobs in their districts.

Administration strategists understand all this, and they think that once they begin to make their case, issue by issue, they'll pick up more support. Surely they will. Even so, despite Democratic majorities in both houses, each issue on which Obama is seeking to change long-standing policy will be a tough battle. In no case -- not climate change, defense spending or even Cuba -- is existing policy held in place simply by Republican obstinacy. What the president really needs is more support than he can now count on from industrial-state Democrats. And on nuclear testing, not even unanimous Democratic support will be enough.

Treaty ratification requires a two-thirds majority, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty will go nowhere unless influential Republican senators support it. The administration's task is further complicated by the fact that, having called for change on so many issues, it can't treat them all as matters of hair-on-fire urgency. The president's floor managers and backroom dealmakers know they will have to resort to the logrolling that defines Congress's daily business. They are probably beginning to wonder whether, even with today's vast federal budget, there's enough pork to go around for all the votes they're going to have to buy.

But if the Obama administration ends up relying on a give-a-little-here, get-a-little-there strategy to move its foreign policy agenda through Congress, it will probably fail. New presidents who want to push for big changes usually conclude that they need more power to make them work. They challenge Congress to defy them by treating it as an out-of-date institution, slow in its ways, poorly adapted to new realities and overly influenced by parochial interests.

There is already a not-so-gentle hint of this approach in the administration's suggestion that if Congress can't reach consensus on sound climate policy, it will exercise its own regulatory authority to achieve the same result. It's not hard to imagine a more aggressive approach on other issues, particularly defense spending. (Richard Nixon, remember, called his defiance of the congressional budget process "sequestration" -- the Obama administration may simply need a fresher term.)

It would be ironic if Barack Obama, following a president whom he scorned for abusing executive power, concluded that he can't reorient foreign policy in the ways he wants without more unhampered authority. But deferring to Congress too often carries a high price. If the president really wants a new foreign policy, he won't want to pay it.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. He was U.S. ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company