Unlike domestic policy, Congress has a limited role to play in foreign policy. The power of the purse is key, as are oversight and confirmation hearings, but the president is essentially in the driver’s seat when it comes to national security.
In the Obama administration there is no more essential task than in working to make the administration more transparent about its missteps and more definitive about its policy choices.
In what seems like a movie plot, we learn the Iranians a week before the election took a shot at a U.S. drone, a fact withheld from the public until after the election. The New York Times reports: “Iranian warplanes shot at an American military surveillance drone flying over the Persian Gulf near Iran last week, Pentagon officials disclosed Thursday. They said that the aircraft, a Predator drone, was flying in international airspace and was not hit and that the episode had prompted a strong protest to the Iranian government. The shooting, which involved two Russian-made Su-25 jets known as Frogfoots, occurred on Nov. 1 and was the first known instance of Iranian warplanes firing on an American surveillance drone.” Even the Times concedes the problem here:
[T]he failure to disclose a hostile encounter with Iran’s military at a time of increased international tensions over the disputed Iranian nuclear program — and five days before the American presidential election — raises questions for the Obama administration. Had the Iranian attack been disclosed before Election Day, it is likely to have been viewed in a political context — interpreted either as sign of the administration’s weakness or, conversely, as an opportunity for President Obama to demonstrate leadership.
Cliff May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies calls the Iranian move “a provocative act, a stick in the eye.” May notes it is a test of sorts, an effort to see if President Obama is desperate for a deal on nuclear weapons development. Will he put the brakes on widely reported secret talks? “If not, he wants the negotiations more than they do – that kind of thing is helpful to know and to reinforce,” May cautions. He adds: “Killing Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, plotting terrorism right in the U.S. capital – they [the Iranians] like to remind themselves, us and the world that they can do these things with impunity.”
Coupled with the closed-door reviews of the Benghazi debacle and the obsessive leaking of national security secrets, the nondisclosure of the drone attack highlights the degree to which the administration is attempting to manage national security under a veil of secrecy, phony executive and national security privileges and out-and-out dissembling. In an election year in which the mainstream media were too often rooting for rather than confronting the administration, Obama got away with this behavior. Will the press continue to shrug its shoulders or will it expend the same resources and energy it did in bird-dogging the Bush administration?
That task, I suspect, will fall largely to the House oversight committees, GOP questioners in Senate confirmation hearings and the conservative media.
Fortunately there will be a confirmation hearing in the new year for a new secretary of state. Republicans should acknowledge up front that the president should get wide berth in selecting people to serve him. It’s not going to be John Bolton, so Republicans should get ready for someone whose views and record they do not particularly like. But the hearings and the confirmation vote should be predicated on getting real information from the administration on foreign policy screw-ups, answering tough questions on Russian reset (what does “flexibility” mean?) and, most important, impressing on the nominee that a phony deal with Iran that allows it to continue enrichment activities is unacceptable.
Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice of Benghazi-dissembling fame and suck-up to Bashar al-Assad Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) should not be treated with kid gloves. They have plenty to answer for if they want to head Foggy Bottom. Indeed, a nomination of either would provide Republicans with a forum to review Obama’s egregious missteps in the first term.
But there is a ray of hope for more competent and robust foreign policy in the second Obama term. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) lost his congressional seat to fellow Democratic congressman Brad Sherman. The Hill reports that his name is now being floated for secretary for state: “Berman, who is Jewish, could also be a good choice to repair relations with Israel and restart negotiations on a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Those talks have largely stalled since 2009 over the issue of Israeli settlements and borders. ‘Berman would be particularly valuable if Obama decides to revive the Middle East peace process,’ New York’s Jewish Week newspaper opined Wednesday. ‘The congressman has the confidence of the Jewish community, Israelis and many leaders in the region.’ He also has friends in both parties on Capitol Hill, making a potential confirmation by the Senate all but certain. Berman was endorsed in his race against Sherman by California’s two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. He was also endorsed by a trio of Senate hawks: Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).”
Berman would offer a set of fresh eyes at State and the incentive to clean house, and he would put forth needed reforms. His selection would signal not only a commitment to more transparency and bipartisanship in national security but also the promise of a more normalized relationship with Israel, a more muscular stance on human rights and an appreciation for the importance of American engagement in the world. Let’s see if Obama moves in that direction or reverts to his first-term preferences for secrecy, obfuscation, retreat and weakness.