Posted by Devin Peterson on 4/14/2012
Every nation has goals and interests that it tries to win or protect by foreign policy. Throughout its history, America has used its foreign policies to (1) maintain economic or military supremacy over threatening countries, e.g., the former U.S.S.R., Iraq, Iran, North Korea; (2) acquire lands for resources and security, e.g., southwest U.S. (from Mexico), Hawaii, Guam, Philippines, Puerto Rico; (3) expand foreign trade, e.g., trade agreements with European Union, Japan, China, Mexico, Canada, India; (4) reduce worldwide unemployment, inflation, and business cycles, e.g. IMF; (5) protect its citizens from foreign attack, e.g., visa and flight restrictions, worldwide surveillance and spying; (6) seek collective economic and military superiority or security with other nations, e.g., UN, Israel, Pakistan, NATO; (7) oppose socialism, e.g., Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam War, Cuba, Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Granada; (8) remain isolated from Europe and the Far East across the oceans, e.g., between WWI and WWII; (9) assist in settling disputes, e.g., Russo-Japanese War, WTO; (10) provide humanitarian aid, e.g., post-WWI American Relief Administration, post-WWII Marshall Plan, Peace Corps; (11) promote democracy, human rights, and capitalism, e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, China. (12) maintain a balance of power, e.g., siding with the Allies against the Central Powers in WWI.
Usually, a combination of these motives govern foreign policy, but they often are hidden behind government propaganda. The careful student of U.S. foreign policy has to dig beneath government pronouncements to discern "the good, the bad, and the ugly."
Who decides American foreign policy? It is the President of the United States, assisted by his many personal advisors, his Cabinet and councils, the CIA and NSA with their spies and surveillance machinery, the Secretary of State with his/her extensive diplomatic corps, and the Defense Secretaries and Pentagon generals with their staffs. He considers opinions from these sources, but the decision is his alone. As checks on presidential power, the U.S. Constitution provides that the Senate can revoke treaties, as it did with the Versailles Treaty following WWI, and the House can refuse funds to implement foreign policies, as they have done on occasion, but their influence has waned because congressmen (and women) don't care to defend themselves over the inevitable public criticism that would likely follow from unfriendly constituents. The Constitution states that the Senate has the exclusive power to declare war, which it sometimes exercised, e.g., Mexican War, WWI, WWII. However, this power has eroded appreciably over time as Presidents thought it expedient to protect the nation from what they perceived as an imminent attack. Seeking a way to reduce the embarrassment of shirking its constitutional authority, but avoiding the equally embarrassing abdication of its constitutional responsibilities, Congress passed a law in 1973 called the War Powers Resolution, which allows limited presidential war making powers for emergencies. So, who is to say what is an emergency? Further, under this Act, the President is supposed to report his actions to Congress within 90 days for their final disposition, but Presidents Clinton and Obama ignored this requirement and suffered no adverse political consequences. In short, the War Powers Resolution isn't worth the paper it is printed on except to serve as a fig leaf for Congress' cowardliness. In the rare cases when the House won't provide the money for a foreign policy, including a war, then the President's advisors can find funds in other appropriations by stretching their original intent, or by downright unlawful means, e.g. President Reagan's sale of arms to Iran for hostages and money ("The Iran-Contra Affair"). A few opponents might voice dissent with innocuous speeches on the Senate and House floors to show their constituents that they really care about foreign policy, but that's just for show. If on rare occasion congressional antagonism becomes too great, the President can use his considerable political influence to cajole, threaten, and bribe with promises of favorable future political and economic treatment. Soon enough, crucial recalcitrant congressmen will often see things his way. Finally, if all else fails, he can use his "bully pulpit" to persuade the public via radio and TV that their way of life is threatened if their representatives' intransigence and opposition continues. If the Senate and House wanted to assume their constitutional authority, were they so adamantly opposed to his policies and were they not so worried about their re-elections, they could impeach, convict, and throw the President out of office as the Constitution provides when he usurps their powers, but this course has never occurred over foreign policy actions, including wars, and only twice for other reasons. Congress prefers instead to rubber stamp the President's foreign policies and stay clear of controversy.
So, is there no way to curb the Imperial Presidency? Must we ordinary mortals and our feckless representatives sheepishly accept His Royal Majesty's foreign policies? Are the masses doomed to slavishly serve Caesar at his beck and call and smile when Caesar smiles? Possibly all is not lost for the Republic. Aside from the many foreign actions that fail so utterly and apparently that any attack or defense would be superfluous and dull, it is public opinion that worries the President most about his foreign policies. Public opinion polls and unruly demonstrators televised around the world can force him and his congressional supporters to change course or risk defeat in upcoming elections, viz., President Johnson during the Vietnam War, who chose not to run again rather than face certain defeat. Disruptive demonstrations by anti-policy activists transmitted around the world have to be taken seriously because they might awaken a sleepy public. Also, the media can promote views regarding his policies that coalesce public opinion for or against his policies. These have become highly effective through satellite communications and cheap, personal video cameras. Consequently, hiding policy failures for very long is almost impossible in our modern, high-tech world. In summary, it is a democratic form of government, a free press, the freedom to assemble and petition (that is, to protest publicly), and modern communications that limit the President's foreign policy options, rather than the Senate or House. To counter adverse public opinion, the President and his advisors use speeches, press conferences, radio talks, and TV appearances to win public and media approval for contentious policies. In spite of these curbs to his authority, the President remains a colossus, and is therefore dangerous, but in the 21st century, unlike in previous centuries, he has to exercise his unparalleled power with caution as long as the voters are informed and interested. Therefore, if the President is not careful, someone, somewhere will shout, "Look, the Emperor has no clothes!" or "Look, there are no weapons of mass destruction!" Then all hell breaks loose.