Partisan bickering among those who are supposed to be our political leaders has gone too far. It has become a greater threat to our nation than external pressures from the Eastern Bloc or internal weaknesses in the economy. Throughout America, and indeed the world, perceptive people see what is happening to us. They do not doubt America's ability to meet difficult challenges once we unite with a common sense of purpose, but they are truly frightened that our leaders are unable to put political differences behind them in a common effort to support obvious national interests.
Since we arrived in the Senate about a decade ago, partisanship within the institution has increased alarmingly. Some partisan one-upmanship may be expected in domestic matters, but it has spilled over into foreign affairs. In consequence, the stable and resolute foreign policy one should expect from the leader of the free world has been undermined by ongoing antagonism and turmoil between Congress and the executive branch of our government.
On one hand, Congress is alarmed at the freebooting adventurism of a go-it-alone executive, as exemplified by the Iran-contra affair. On the other hand, the executive branch complains that Congress consists of 535 secretaries of state who cannot resist any opportunity to interfere with arms negotiations and to micromanage foreign relations. The result is that mutual suspicion and a state of flux have supplanted the predictability and sense of purpose which characterize a leadership position in world affairs.
Unlike parliamentary systems, our Constitution divides foreign policy responsibility between two independent branches of government. The president is the commander in chief, but Congress gives its advice and consent to treaties and to the appointment of ambassadors. In recent times, Congress has confused this shared responsibility for foreign affairs with incessant and irresponsible tinkering. Routine authorization and appropriations bills have given members almost limitless opportunity to weigh in on everything from the maximum allowable height above sea level for the site of the Soviet Embassy in Washington to the precise manner in which our forces are deployed in the Persian Gulf.
Last year the Senate conducted 20 roll-call votes on aid to the Nicaraguan contras in an unending effort to fine-tune the precise circumstances under which military or humanitarian assistance might be offered.
During recent consideration of the State Department authorization bill, 86 floor amendments were added dealing with such matters as the proper decorum for motorcades carrying foreign visitors around our nation's capital (e.g. no honking), and the closing of our embassy in Antigua. Most of these amendments had received no committee consideration and little debate on the Senate floor.
This fall, the Senate wrestled for weeks over whether to invoke the War Powers Act in connection with America's presence in the Persian Gulf, and finally decided, reversing a previous vote, to defer for two months any judgment on the practice of reflagging and escorting oil tankers.
That sort of vacillation typifies one of Congress' most egregious habits in the field of foreign policy. Whether it is in the Persian Gulf or Central America, SDI or SALT II compliance, fundamental questions go unresolved. Everything is seen as subject to future debate. All issues remain on the table, or can be brought back to the table for further consideration. Even the much-heralded compromise between Congress and the administration on how to interpret the ABM Treaty was an agreement to put off a resolution of the issue until next year.
The free world looks to the United States for leadership, but who can follow a leader that cannot decide where it is going and that sets out first in one direction and then in another?
In light of the debacle of Vietnam and the Iran-contra fiasco, it is unreasonable for any administration to expect Congress to confer upon it the blind confidence of another Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Yet, surely there is room for a modus vivendi between an autonomous executive and a tinkering Congress. The time has come for rebuilding a truly bipartisan foreign policy in which congressional deference in the execution of policy would be offered in exchange for legitimate consultation and trust in the formulation of policy. Congress would agree to restrain its back-seat driver activities in exchange for a role in planning the trip.
The beginning of a new bipartisan foreign policy might be patterned after the efforts of a Democratic administration and a Republican Senate in the post-World War II era. Then, Secretary of State George Marshall, Undersecretary Robert Lovett and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg met informally at the Wardman Park Hotel to draft a general statement of the principles of American foreign policy. Their meetings formed the basis of Senate Resolution 239, the Vandenberg Resolution, which, in turn, set the stage for the North Atlantic Alliance and gave added support to the Marshall Plan.
In many ways, the now aging and tattered consensus that emerged from those meetings and played a dominant role in American foreign policy throughout the postwar era remains the closest thing we have to a foreign policy blueprint for today. Our generation has not had the will to create a new one.
We suspect that an informal meeting between a limited number of administration and congressional leaders would be able to set forth a broad consensus on the fundamental objectives and principles of foreign policy that could provide the starting point for a new spirit of bipartisanship.
What is needed is both a general statement of foreign policy principles in the manner of the Vandenberg Resolution and an ongoing process for working out specific differences as they arise, but before they are ripe for legislative action.
If the views we have expressed make sense, then the question remains: Where do we go from here? The answer depends on what response, if any, we evoke from the administration and members of Congress. We would hope for an informal meeting of no more than a handful of administration representatives and interested members of Congress for the purposes of 1) drafting a statement of agreed foreign policy principles, and 2) exploring a system for resolving foreign policy disputes. If the call is for volunteers to convene such a meeting, then count us in.
David L. Boren is a Democratic senator from Oklahoma. John C. Danforth is a Republican senator from Missouri.