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Friday, August 24, 2007

A Global Awakening in Congress? by Viola Herms Drath

A global awakening in Congress?

Viola Herms Drath
August 24, 2007

Congress is in recess and at home trying to assess the mood of the country. In scrutinizing their current standing among their constituency, one can be fairly sure foreign relations will not be on the agenda. Still, questions about the quagmire in Iraq and the explosive Middle East in general haunt our conflicted lawmakers wherever they appear. Traditionally relegated to the congressional back burner, foreign affairs have unexpectedly become local issues.

From Missouri to Maine, our lawmakers grapple with whether to take the approach of "traditionalists," who, says former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, "believe in operating within the traditions of 20th-century foreign policy — that one proceeds in foreign policy in conjunction with, or reaching out to our friends, allies and international organizations." Or they might follow the " transformationalists," who argue "that September 11 [2001] showed that the world environment was deteriorating rapidly and we had to be bold. Friends and allies would only hold us back," according to Mr. Scowcroft.

Sheltered by oceans for centuries and secure in their superpower status as guarantors of freedom and human rights, Americans paid scant attention to the political developments and power struggles abroad. They did not have to. They proudly supported various administrations in their effort to advance democracy on the international front, focusing on American aid, technical assistance, free enterprise and economic merits of globalization among struggling nations. Occupied with grassroots politics, Congress left foreign relations and diplomacy more or less to the "experts."

All that changed with the terrorist attacks of September 11. The homeland was attacked. Retribution in the guise of regime change in Iraq was on the mind of the administration and our policymakers. Empowered academics and crafty exile lobbyists pursued their own agenda. Opting to bring democracy and human rights to authoritarian states, the strategic export democracy, resulted in a dramatic backlash against democratic assistance in those countries — despite elections. Democracy can be nurtured but not imposed.

It appears there is no substitute for the fine art of diplomacy rooted in democratic principles that nevertheless, according to eminent state philosopher Hans J. Morgenthau, is confronted with "the ever-present risk of conflict between the Executive and Congress and within the executive branch itself."

It is no secret that Congress, generally speaking, still treats foreign policy as a political orphan. Unlike the fierce contest for a seat on the powerful appropriations, banking, energy or trade committees, there are is little competition, especially among the younger generation, for seats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee or the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. After all, all politics are local. Notwithstanding terrorist threats, there are no votes "out there," it is argued, unless there is an "ethnic vote" factor. No matter the congressional district , every politician knows there are precious votes for solutions concerning the home front, from urban renewal to crop damages, energy costs to health care.

Between long committee meetings, caucuses, task forces, congressional coalition gatherings, study groups and hours set aside for visiting constituents, there is little time to study, analyze and challenge complex foreign relations executive briefings. Often couched in elliptical language, these events seem to become dwindling attractions. And while the Congressional Research Service has been known to provide excellent source material, few lawmakers and their staff make sufficient use of it.

Congress' lack of interest in foreign relations — perceived or real — is not helped by a news media overwhelmed by the digital revolution. The Internet, promoting consumerism and trivia in a frenzy of instantaneous communication, the Drudge Report and talking heads have resulted in shrinking newspaper readerships and smaller profits.

Since news that sell papers is local too, foreign correspondents and their expertise are on the verge of becoming history. Major newspapers around the country continue closing their offices abroad. Coverage of international news has shrunk. Only a handful of papers, among them The Washington Times, have been able to extend their coverage abroad by contributions from free-lance journalists, stringers and occasional fact-finding trips by staff members.

Moreover, thanks to a number of prominent misguided and misleading members of the press corps, among them Judith Miller formerly of the New York Times, the media are losing credibility. Just 26 percent of the readers of the Wall Street Journal believe all or most of what they read in that paper.

Considering the complexities of our new, dangerous and not so brave world, it is time for Congress to erase its interest deficit in foreign affairs. Facing the unresolved North Korean nuclear weapons imbroglio and Tehran's nuclear standoff, the ongoing suffering in Sudan, the delicate economic balancing act with India and China, and Vladimir Putin's ambitious new Russia, it becomes clear that the United States needs help. Its challenges compounded by Muslim extremism, undercutting a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, topped by endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington is obliged to find support.

Congress must be fully engaged. However, to find solutions it has to be educated in foreign policy issues in all its aspects and do its homework. By opening debates, Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Joseph Biden of Delaware, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Reps. Tom Lantos of California and Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, among others, show the way. America may be the indispensable nation but must reach out for indispensable partners.

Viola Herms Drath is a board member and trustee of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and recipient of the 20005 William J. Flynn Initiative for Peace Award for her seminal work promoting German unification.

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