The U.S. Congress Vs. the United Nations: Profiles in Courage

Has the U.S. Congress become irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy decisions?

March 26, 2003

Has the U.S. Congress become irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy decisions?

The United States Congress — and especially the U.S. Senate — likes to portray itself as the world's most deliberative body. It certainly is one of the world's most important — and powerful — legislative branches.

Members of Congress take their role of being a check-and-balance mechanism on the executive branch very seriously.

As a matter of fact, in the domain of foreign policy, each member of Congress ultimately views himself — or herself — as a U.S. Secretary of State in their own right.

So much for their heightened sense of self-importance. For a sober reality check, consider the momentous vote of the U.S. Congress on October 11, 2002, when the Bush Administration got authority to "use force" against Iraq.

The resolution specifies that: "The President shall no later than 48 hours after [!] exercising such authority, make available his determination that further diplomatic or other peaceful means alone either (A) will not adequately protect the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq or (B) is not likely to lead to enforcement of all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions."

Note that the resolution specifically states that Congress expects to be given the reasons for the use of force only after an attack has been launched. In other words, the resolution contains a mere notification requirement. Congress thus gave up its own say on the matter all the way back in October — almost half a year before the outbreak of hostilities.

Thus, in one fell swoop, the legislative branch effectively abdicated its responsibility — and handed a carte blanche to the executive branch.

This is all the more astounding as there were plenty of big issues to ponder.

And yet, the U.S. Congress chose not to debate the concept of a pre-emptive war (that is, going to war without the United States having come — or being under the imminent threat — of an attack). It also failed to address the equally vital question of whether this is a premature war.

As the events have borne out, after that one vote, there was nothing stopping the Bush Administration from going to war with Iraq. It certainly saw no further need to ask.

This amazing grant of broad decision-making authority even in the case of war really is a rather old-hat issue on the U.S. political stage.

Even though Article I of the U.S. Constitution requires that "The Congress shall have Power to […] declare War" and provide everything else necessary for warfare, the nation's legislators in reality seem to prefer not having to be asked about such a momentous issue in a definitive fashion.

True, to keep real "bad boys" — such as the Nixon Administration – from resorting to war too easily, the Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973 which states, that "The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities […]".

And yet, whenever a U.S. Administration decides that it is necessary to lead the country into war, what is not invoked is the War Powers Act.

In short, members of Congress prefer to have it both ways. They like to pretend that they are the ultimate decision-making body in the land, more powerful in some ways even to the sitting president.

But whenever the going gets tough, these self-ascribed tough guys on Capitol Hill go into hiding. As long as they can claim they are powerful and all-decisive without actually having to wash their hands in blood, if at all avoidable, that's what they prefer.

Sure, many Representatives and Senators expressed their opinion on the war — often in front of an almost empty chamber and without the back-and-forth that is thought to be the hallmark of a truly great deliberative body.

Thus, any American who wanted to witness a real debate about war with Iraq had to tune into broadcasts from the British House of Commons, where Prime Minister Tony Blair defended his government's policy in a spirited and profound 10-hour session — in front of a packed parliament and a captive national audience.

More embarrassing yet, Turkey's parliament likewise had very vigorous debates and votes over the pros and cons of the war with Iraq.

Even though the outcome was not what the United States had hoped for, the debate held in Ankara set a standard of deliberation the famous U.S. Congress never managed to live up to.

It's not that no vivid debate took place in the United States at all. It just didn't happen in Washington, D.C. Rather, it occurred at the United Nations in New York. There, the deliberations among foreign ministers and UN ambassadors on the issue of Iraq provided some of the most powerful moments of global debate — and the intriguing contours of a global parliament.

Here, then, is the sobering — even depressing — truth for all those 535 members of the Untied States Congress. Many of them, especially from the conservative camp, have made it a national sport to belittle the United Nations — and calling the world organization irrelevant.

But one must wonder how they can claim that they, indeed, were any more relevant than the United Nations when it came to the issue of Iraq.

From the vantage point of the Bush Administration, both bodies — the United Nations and the U.S. Congress — were considered to act as mere rubber stamps.

And here is what the pivotal difference emerges: While the U.S. Congress was all too happy to oblige and carefully avoided any tough deliberations, the supposedly meek United Nations — and its Security Council — showed more guts and concern for the potential consequences of a rush to war.

Unlike the U.S. Congress, the United Nations actually managed to stand up to the U.S. administration. It questioned the rationale, wisdom and timeliness of the war actions urged by the Bush Administration.

The unsavory readiness of the U.S. Congress to reduce itself to a mere rubber stamp was what forced non-domestic actors — such as the governments of Germany, France, Russia and China — to take on the responsibilities of a U.S. opposition party.

As a matter of principle, the primary check on any country's government should come from its own parliament. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of the world's remaining superpower.

If, however, that nation’s parliament decides that it is more convenient — and politically opportune, if not opportunist — to opt out, then it exposes a serious fault in the system. But that is a fault within the United States — not in the world.

After all, in Western democracies, nations are not supposed to have rubber-stamp parliaments. Saying that this is what the United States Congress really adds up to in cases like the war resolution will no doubt create big howls.

But for the world's most deliberative body to be so deliberate in abdicating its responsibility does not leave the caring observer with a whole lot of confidence. At a minimum, it should give key political players in the United States a lot of reasons to rethink their recent grandstanding.