Washington is a town lousy with partisanship. At this point, when bipartisan action is taken, it is worth noticing. As my Post colleague Karoun Demrijian reported two days ago, there has been a rare bipartisan move in Congress to push for strengthening sanctions against Russia:
Senators have struck a deal to put a comprehensive Russia sanctions bill on the floor this week, according to those negotiating the legislation.
The measure, which will be attached to a bill to stiffen Iran sanctions that is under consideration, incorporates proposals to codify existing Russia sanctions, introduce punitive measures against Moscow in light of Russia’s aggressive activities in Ukraine, introduce measures addressing Syria and the realm of cyberhacking, and give Congress the power to review efforts by the administration to scale back sanctions against Russia before they can go through.
Another Post colleague, Jennifer Rubin, writes in praise of the deal, concluding:
The bill is a big win for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), once under consideration to be Trump’s secretary of state, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has been a strong proponent of sanctions aimed at Russia. Their accomplishment underscores a point we have made often, that if one takes away Trump, there is considerable bipartisan agreement on many foreign policy issues. Whether Trump agrees or not, the need to tighten screws on Russia has become as bipartisan an issue as one can find these days. The Russians will be sorely disappointed that putting their thumb on the scales in the presidential race isn’t buying them relief from sanctions (emphasis added).
So how does the executive branch feel about all of this? Politico’s Elana Schor notes some discomfort:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that the agreement to get tough on Russia would shut off communications with Moscow that he’d like to keep open for now.
“What we would like is the flexibility to turn that heat up when we sense that our efforts” are failing to secure greater cooperation from Russia on anti-terrorism efforts and resolving the Syrian civil war, Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
So, to sum up: The Senate has reached a bipartisan deal to sanction the country that clearly made efforts to hack the 2016 election and has not stopped since then. The secretary of state, who has demonstrated less diplomatic competence than Dennis Rodman, opposes this deal. As someone who said last year that Russia was the key to understanding who controlled American foreign policy under Trump, I should feel giddy about all of this.
The thing is, I don’t.
Look, push comes to shove, I support this move. Tactically, it makes sense for Congress to constrain the president’s hands on this issue. But as a sanctions scholar, I am not sure how I would feel if anyone else was president besides Trump.
The problem is not that Congress is unable to impose sanctions. Hell, when it comes to foreign policy, sanctions are the go-to foreign policy move for the House and the Senate. The problem is that while it is easy for the legislative branch to reach bipartisan accord to impose sanctions, it is much more difficult for lawmakers to reach agreement to lift them. As we have seen recently in the cases of both Iran and Cuba, Congress is loath to lift sanctions against enduring rivals. There are enough members of Congress who want to burnish their hawkish credentials such that they will not support any deal cut by the executive branch.
To be fair to the hawks, they might not like the specifics of any deal negotiated by the president with an adversary. The cumulative effect, however, is that Congress imposes sanctions but does not lift them. For potential targets, this reduces the incentive to negotiate with the United States for concessions. Why bother with real cooperation if Congress will not lift what it has imposed?
I get the need for a more hawkish posture toward Russia. I support it, given Russia’s activities for the past few years. But make no mistake, Russia is a great power that cannot be embargoed into irrelevance. Some flexibility will be required, and this sanctions bill will lessen that flexibility.
Trump is such a foreign policy half-wit that he is forcing Congress to take the lead on foreign policy. But the last thing members of the legislative branch want is to take the lead on anything of foreign policy import. Usually, they are really, really bad at it. Over the long run, this will hamper a competent executive branch’s ability to conduct foreign affairs.
Yes, in isolation, this response to Russian behavior makes lots of foreign policy sense. Don’t kid yourself, however: This is a radically imperfect, second-best solution caused by a president who does not understand the first thing about international relations. And I suspect there will be regrets in the future about it.