From Zeno to Bibi (and John Boehner and Seth Lipsky?)

On 18 February, the English language edition of Ha’Aretz (good paper) ran a column by an American, Seth Lipsky, that presented a highly questionable interpretation of both the United States Constitution and the motivations behind House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to drop by for a chat.

Ha’Aretz this isn’t, but somebody, somewhere, needs to enunciate some hiccups.

Headlined, “Boehner’s Finest Hour,” a phrase that also appears in the text, Mr. Lipsky argues that the invitation represents a long-overdue attempt by the Congress to reassert itself as a branch co-equal with the executive in the formulation and conduct of US foreign policy. He claims that the Constitution authorizes the president only to command the military, receive ambassadors and negotiate treaties; Congress gets everything else.

But what is this “everything else”? And during those eras when Congress did attempt to control foreign policy, how’d we make out?

Before reprising that sorry history, let’s dispose of three attractive but useless items.

First, not so many wars ago, it was held that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” or at least should stop there. Never has. Never will. Not when foreign policy was held to be the preserve of a small Atlanticist elite, and not now in this age of globalized everything.

Second, Congress holds the “power of the purse” and, constitutionally, is capable of starting or ending anything it chooses by the simple act of appropriating or cutting off funds. But this potentially dictatorial power has never worked in foreign affairs and has rarely even been tried. The Boland Amendment, forbidding the Reagan administration from spending anything on the Nicaraguan contras, didn’t stop Ollie North and had the dubious effect of criminalizing policy differences. Nor did cutting off aid to South Vietnam in 1975 as North Vietnamese tanks crashed the gates of the presidential palace, accomplish a whole lot.

Third – this is not explicit in the Constitution, but centuries of court cases and practice have made it so – Congress has the undisputed right of oversight but neither the power nor the ability to micro-manage anything.

Now, as to Congress role as a co-equal branch in foreign affairs:

We all know what happens when Congress caves. Unnecessary wars leading to disasters both predictable and inevitable. Or, to be precise, Congress authorizes or acquiesces in the disasters, then sits back, criticizes endlessly, glories in its righteousness and refuses to take responsibility. How could it, what with elections every two years for the entire House and a third of the Senate?

Less well-remembered is what has happened when Congress does assert itself. All that isolationism back in the 1930s that FDR had to wriggle around whilst dragging the American people to realization of the dangers of the Axis. And before that, 1919, the refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles – a complex failure to accept a hideously flawed settlement, but in substantial measure attributable to the ego games of two men: President Woodrow Wilson and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

We shall pass over earlier Congressional attempts to run foreign affairs that ended in such stellar successes as the War of 1812, and stick to what happened after America made it into the big leagues.

Lodge versus Wilson. A personal rivalry that began when each man coveted for himself the meaningless honorific of “The Scholar in Politics” and grew until it changed the fate of the world.

FDR, that man in the White House, as the Republicans mocked him, against the isolationists. A bit of Congressional ego involved there, too, as well as political odium and class animosity.

And now, the Show That Never Ends But Will – President Obama against those who would disagree if he announced that the sun will rise tomorrow.

So what’s Congress’ proper role? Three words in the Constitution enunciate it broadly. Advise and consent. Not just on treaties, but as a constant process, best conducted without rancor, spite and ego games. In this sense, Mr. Boehner’s invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu is constitutionally kosher, but in the world as it is, a cheap and gimmicky move that instantly turned into a media carnival and yet another opportunity for the punditry to strut their dudgeon.

A cheap shot aided and abetted, for his own reasons, by the care-taker prime minister of another country that deserves better.

I confess that neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Netanyahu numbers among my favorite citizens. Perhaps after they both leave office they can co-host a television show. I understand that the Comedy Channel has some openings.

Meanwhile, the rest of us ought to accept this farce for what it is and give it the attention it deserves.

Next week: Wrapping up the relevance of the Hellenistic era to the present mess. I was going to do it today but it’s nearly 1800 and I’ve been waiting for the plumber all day and had to vent about something.

About the Author
Philip Gold made Aliyah from USA in 2010 after several decades as a Beltway "public intellectual" of sorts.
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