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Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Why Congress Shouldn't Make Foreign Policy

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently sneered at U.S. lawmakers' move to impose new economic sanctions on his country, saying that "80 percent of them have never left the USA." It was a cheap shot and probably inaccurate, but he has a broader point.

The U.S. is unusual in the way it allows the legislature to get involved in the details of making foreign policy, beyond oversight and approving declarations of war (Congress's day job, which it often doesn't do enough of). Legislating foreign policy detail sounds like a good idea -- presumably, it could make the process more democratic and impose checks on the president -- but in most cases it isn't. It often undermines the national interest, and frustrates U.S. negotiating partners.

That's because conducting foreign policy is a bit like playing chess. The player has to consider multiple pieces on the other side of the board and think ahead multiple moves. Every move changes the situation on several fronts (think, for example, of the cross-overs among U.S. policy in Syria, nuclear negotiations with Iran and relations with Russia).

U.S. presidents play this game with a committee looking over their shoulders. From time to time this committee reaches in to make a move of its own, or to stop him from using certain pieces on the board. And although some members of the committee are highly qualified, many others don't have much of a clue about the world. They're driven by the concerns of their own local voters. As Lee Hamilton, a former chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs once put it:

Congress also plays an unhelpful role in foreign policy when it reflects narrow ethnic interests and when it engages in politically divisive actions on foreign policy, paying scant attention to the requirements of protecting and advancing broad U.S. national interests. 

Worse, the legislative process can skew the timing of a policy. By the time a move is made it may be exactly the wrong moment. And once made, congressional foreign policy decisions can be very difficult to undo. 

Take Russia. The U.S. and Europe are trying to manage a crisis over Russia's semi-covert invasions of Ukrainian territory. Their policy relies on sanctions and, to the extent these have had an impact, it's because the U.S. has been coordinating tightly with the European Union (the mother of all committees, but also Russia's biggest trading partner and investor). 

A number of U.S. senators and representatives want President Barack Obama to move faster. So now they have passed legislation calling for new sanctions on Russia, for the punishment of foreign financial institutions that don't abide by these new restrictions, and for U.S. weaponry to be sent to Ukraine. This bill passed by "unanimous consent" on the House floor, without debate, just before 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 11. The process took less than 5 minutes. Judging by the Congressional Record, as few as three of 435 representatives may have been present at the time. Not exactly the voice of the people.

The bill is also unhelpful on the merits. Sending U.S. weapons to kill Russian troops in Ukraine is a bad idea, as I've argued before. The EU countries that trade with Russia -- and unlike the U.S. are taking a hit from sanctions -- will not like being told their banks will be penalized if they don't apply new sanctions that have been imposed without European consent. That's a good way to do Putin's work for him and split Europe from the U.S. Obama has agreed to sign the bill in part because he has flexibility to ignore much of it for now. 

Finally, Congress has blundered in just as the Russian ruble is collapsing. That's happening mainly because of plummeting oil prices, putting Russia's economy under more strain than the sanctions could hope to achieve in years. There are some signs Putin may be looking for a way to save face in Ukraine. I'm not suggesting anyone should take that to the bank or suddenly lift sanctions (though my colleague Leonid Bershidsky disagrees). The purpose of sanctions, though, is to secure an outcome. If Putin comes to truly believe what he has said in the past -- which is that no matter what he does the U.S. will keep sanctions on -- what incentive does he have to get out of Ukraine?

You can see why he might think that. It took 21 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union for Congress to repeal the 1975 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which imposed sanctions to encourage the Soviets to let Jews emigrate. The amendment became largely symbolic, but the refusal of Congress to repeal it was a needless irritant to relations with Russia for years. Similarly, while Obama just restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, don't hold your breath for Congress to lift the 54-year-old trade embargo.

Then there is Iran, which may be the foreign policy area most vulnerable to congressional meddling. The next Congress is sure to try again to pass one of the bills that have been in the works for months. These would add to sanctions against Iran, in the midst of negotiations to end Iran's nuclear program that are based on an agreement that caps both sanctions and Iran's uranium enrichment while talks go on. Breaking that deal would be to upend the chess board altogether.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net