We tend to think of congressional oversight as identical to investigating scandals. The latter is only one aspect of oversight. That need for basic oversight (What are we doing and why? What are the results? Who decided on this disastrous strategy?) is as great, if not greater, on the foreign-policy side than on the domestic side. Simply because presidents have the power — the exclusive power in some cases — to conduct foreign policy does not mean they are immune from oversight. To the contrary, oversight is especially important to ensure transparency and accountability on that foreign policy.
There are certainly discrete questions that must be answered. “What did President Trump say to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki?” “What action are we taking against Saudi Arabia in response to the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi?” However, on virtually every issue, there is a disconnect between official “policy” and what we are actually doing. And that is a problem.
The administration’s official policy laid out in the 2017 National Security Strategy says we are supposed to “deepen collaboration with our European allies and partners to confront forces threatening to undermine our common values, security interests, and shared vision. The United States and Europe will work together to counter Russian subversion and aggression, and the threats posed by North Korea and Iran. We will continue to advance our shared principles and interests in international forums.” Does anyone think Trump is doing this?
Kori Schake ably explains the fundamental problem in a piece that should be read in full. However, one particular section deserves emphasis:
There is no substitute for having a strategy married to its times, to use Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s term for the proper embedding of politics into strategy.
The crafters of President Trump’s National Security Strategy heroically attempted to do just this, harnessing the president’s campaign agenda in developing the 2017 strategy. And, to their credit, it is a reasonable enough strategy — far better than we had any right to expect, given the president’s erratic and often unsound predilections. But their effort may now be judged a failure on the grounds of both irrelevance and potential disaster. Irrelevance, because Trump’s policies do not bear much resemblance to the confines of the National Security Strategy on any number of issues — Russia, American relationships with allies, or the importance of providing the resources necessary to achieve the strategy’s objectives in the first place. And potential disaster because the president is conveying deep unhappiness with the costs and consequences of those policies consistent with the strategy, such as the Afghanistan war and stabilizing involvement in Syria and Iraq, and has even called into question whether he will sustain those policies at all. He may yet balk and abruptly change course.
In practice, congressional oversight of foreign policy should look at each major international challenge and determine what our policy is (if we even have one) and whether it is working. Are the means calculated to obtain the desired result? For example, one section of our Indo-Pacific strategy is supposed to be the commitment to “work with allies and partners to achieve complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and preserve the non-proliferation regime in Northeast Asia.” An oversight hearing on Asia, and on North Korea specifically, would explore questions such as:
- Does pulling out of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) make that harder or easier?
- What evidence is there that the Singapore Summit affected North Korea’s conduct given reports such as this: “Various satellite images this summer have shown North Korea expanding several key missile production facilities and rapidly upgrading its main nuclear research facility at Yongbyon, even after a historic June 12 summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.”
- If it isn’t working what are we doing about it? Did the summit undercut the impression of maximum pressure we were trying to project?
- Are sanctions more or less porous since the summit?
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been rude, evasive and nonresponsive when questioned in the past. Committee members should not countenance this in the future.
Whether it is Afghanistan (are we still accomplishing anything?), or Syria (what we are doing is calculated to do . . . what, exactly?), or China (is the trade war working), we see that the failures of Republicans in the House and Senate has led to an utter lack of transparency and accountability on administration policies, which often seem disconnected from individual actions we are taking. (If we really think there is a peace process in Israel, why did we move our Embassy to Jerusalem? If we are committed to fighting cyberwarfare, why did we let Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE off the hook? If we don’t challenge Iran in Syria, how can we say we’re challenging its hegemonic ambitions in the region?)
Come to think of it, we might have a foreign policy disconnected from individual actions because oversight has been minimal — if not entirely nonexistent.
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