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Back-door diplomacy: where does it lead?

A Colombian police commander has caused a tempest in a teapot with a tornado's potential, by going straight to House Speaker Dennis Hastert to get more money for his part of the war on drugs.

The tempest arises from bruised feelings in the State Department and the Office of Management and Budget, who were left out of the loop. The tornado could arise if this gets to be a habit.

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The larger issue is relations between members of Congress and officials of foreign governments: These aren't supposed to exist in the traditional view of US foreign policymaking.

Listen to the Supreme Court in 1936: "Into the field of negotiation, the Senate cannot intrude." The Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1816: "...the interference of the Senate in the direction of foreign negotiations [is] calculated ... to impair the best security for the national safety." The Supreme Court again in 1936: [The president], not Congress, has the better opportunity of knowing the conditions which prevail in foreign countries."

These views have been overtaken by events. In the period between the two world wars, it was often thought that the League of Nations was lost by President Wilson's failure to take senators to the Versailles peace conference. President Roosevelt therefore included senators in the talks that led to the United Nations.

Thus was planted a seed that grew apace as Congress became more assertive during the Vietnam War and later. Members of Congress and their staffs travelled the world, holding meetings with presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, intelligence officials, military officers, and members of parliament. The American participants got used to hearing pleas for more foreign aid or more trade concessions, along with predictions of communist takeovers if these benefits were not forthcoming. Sometimes the Americans tried to fulfill the requests after they got home; more often they did not.

Foreigners began coming to Washington, too, and soon learned that visits to Capitol Hill could be worthwhile.

Sometimes these visits yielded legislative benefits in the form of dollars and cents, sometimes in terms of congressional pressure on the State Department, Pentagon, or White House. The Israelis, powerfully aided by the American Jewish community, have been especially adept at this. So have refugees and opposition groups from sundry countries.

Members of Congress and their staff regularly attend international conferences as part of the US delegation. They have occasionally turned up at conferences from which the State Department stayed home. One of Mr. Hastert's recent predecessors, Jim Wright (D) of Texas, actively engaged in negotiations seeking peace between warring factions in Central America. The negotiations failed, in part because the Reagan administration refused to take part.

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Purists cling to the rigid line of separation observed in an earlier day, but gradually the State Department has become more pragmatic: If Congress intervenes on its side, that's OK.

This larger congressional role has added another player in the game of making foreign policy: foreigners themselves, either officials or interest groups.

All of these people want something that may or may not coincide with US interests. When they can't get what they want out of the State Department, they beat a path to Capitol Hill, as did the Colombian police general to Hastert's office. The two already had a rapport, formed when Hastert was chairman of a subcommittee interested in drugs.

Given Hastert's influence in the House, the general has a good chance of getting what he wants, and antidrug policy in Colombia may take a direction different from what the Clinton administration wants. This is unlikely to be disastrous.

Similar incidents are going to recur. The potential for escalating from a tempest to a tornado lies in how much self-restraint is exercised in Congress. Except for some hurt feelings in the State Department, the current affair doesn't amount to much.

But suppose the Taiwan Chinese get to an influential member of Congress for some high-performance aircraft?

*Pat M. Holt is a Washington writer on foreign affairs. He is the coauthor of 'Invitation to Struggle: Congress, the President and Foreign Policy' (Congressional Quarterly Press, 1992).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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