Blinken Wants Congress Engaged on Foreign Policy—But It Takes Two to Tango | Opinion

Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee to be the next secretary of state, will very likely have one of the toughest jobs in Washington. If confirmed by the Senate, the former Clinton national security official, Senate staffer, and Obama-era deputy secretary of state will enter the State Department with its diplomatic ranks demoralized after three years of Mike Pompeo marginalizing the rank-and-file turning the building into another front in Washington's daily partisan battle zone. Blinken clearly understands how steep the mountain is in front of him, promising during his nomination hearing that he will re-empower America's diplomats and revitalize U.S. partnerships around the world.

Yet it was a small section towards the end of Blinken's opening statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that was especially refreshing. Addressing the body as a whole, Blinken told the senators assembled that the Biden administration will treat the U.S. Congress as a full-voiced partner in the realm of foreign policy. "In recent years, across administrations of both parties, Congress's voice in foreign policy has been diluted and diminished," Blinken remarked. "President-elect Biden believes – and I share his conviction – that no foreign policy can be sustained without the informed consent of the American people."

Rosy words, indeed. And totally appropriate ones. For those who pay close attention to the inter-Washington dynamics, the lopsided power dynamic between the presidency and the legislative branch is hard to miss. Going back to at least the Reagan administration, foreign policy in general and questions of war and peace in particular have been largely the purview of the executive branch, where the President makes the tough decisions and rank-and-file lawmakers on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue are consulted about it after the fact. There have been multiple episodes over the last four decades where U.S. troops have been deployed into hostilities without Congress even having a debate, let alone a vote, on the matter. The examples are too numerous to list, but they include Grenada, 1983; Panama 1989; Iraq in 1993, 1996, and 1998; Bosnia, 1995; Kosovo, 1999; Libya, 2011; Yemen, 2015; and Syria in 2017 and 2018. In each of these cases, the President of the United States made the unilateral decision to use U.S. military force without bothering to receive congressional approval.

Blinken has first-hand experience with this all-too-regular phenomenon. During his stint as national security adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden, the Obama administration made the decision in March 2011 to bomb the late Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces in order to stop their advance against opposition elements in the east of the country. In justifying the use of force, the Obama White House presented a thin-reeded legal argument: because the U.S. air campaign against Qaddafi was narrow and U.S. ground forces weren't at risk, the War Powers Resolution was inapplicable and congressional authorization wasn't required. Lawmakers at the time were stupefied and angry about the legal reasoning, viewing it as an insult to their intelligence and a direct violation of the separation-of-powers. While it's highly unlikely Antony Blinken had anything to do with those legal arguments, he was nonetheless a supporter of the intervention—an intervention that helped open up a Pandora's Box of extremism, warlordism, and civil war that dominates Libya to this day.

Blinken, a decade removed from the Libya episode, is now committing himself and the State Department as an institution to treating Congress as a co-equal branch in the development of U.S. foreign policy. This commitment should be applauded, for it's a long overdue recognition from former executive branch officials that the balance of power in Washington has been skewed toward the executive for far too long.

Ultimately, however, addressing the power imbalance is not solely up to Blinken, Joe Biden, or the White House. It will require Congress, both at the leadership levels and deep into the back-benches, to insist on being respected as a serious player rather than some kind of symbolic spectator. An important step toward a more accountable U.S. foreign policy is a more accountable Congress, one just as passionate about debating and voting on whether deploying the U.S. military into hostilities is in the national interest as it is in passing amendments that keep thousands of U.S. troops bottled up in a 20-year war. It requires lawmakers to confront the tough votes rather than making excuses and ducking them out of convenience. And above all, it requires lawmakers on the key national security committees to perform the serious, level-headed oversight of the executive branch that is so crucial to spotting mistakes and correcting policies that are otherwise counterproductive, overly expansive, or simply unsuccessful.

In short: if Congress wants to be treated as an equal, it needs to do the job the Founders insisted on in the U.S. Constitution.

The American people pay their lawmakers to make the difficult decisions that impact the overall strength, safety, and prosperity of the Republic. The only other alternative is rushed policymaking process—one the nation may come to regret.

Daniel DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, a contributor to the National Interest and a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.