Where Are the Grownups? It’s Time for Congress to Step Up

President Donald Trump, lower right hand corner, shakes hands as he leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, following his address to a joint session of Congress.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP

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President Donald Trump, lower right hand corner, shakes hands as he leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, following his address to a joint session of Congress.

The confused response to the Qatari crisis is just the latest warning that a depleted executive branch needs foreign-policy help.

On Tuesday, the State Department released a statement saying it was “mystified” by the lack of evidence from Persian Gulf states regarding “Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism” — the pretext for the Saudi led-effort to cut off Doha diplomatically and economically. Many foreign-policy observers might confess to being mystified as well — by the contradictory responses from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has called for reducing tensions, and his boss Donald Trump, who has used tweets and other public statements to support the Saudi line and bash Qatar. The Qataris themselves no doubt wonder why the president would attack a country that hosts a crucial U.S. military base and enables backchannel negotiations throughout the Arab world.

It’s hardly the first diplomatic blunder from an erratic president with little experience in foreign affairs. But each one raises this question anew: Why aren’t members of Congress taking more responsibility for shaping America’s foreign policy? Where are the grown-ups?

Lawmakers have often helped craft important elements of U.S. foreign policy. Rep. Charlie Wilson, as depicted in the film Charlie Wilson’s War, championed efforts to arm the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, helping to hasten the fall of the Soviet Union. As the USSR collapsed, Senators Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar beat back the tide of nuclear proliferation by promoting measures to protect Moscow’s nuclear arsenal from theft. More recently, Senators Patrick Leahy and Jeff Flake have been fierce advocates for rekindling U.S. relations with Cuba.

In truth, members of Congress may be better suited to resolving long-term foreign policy problems than members of the executive branch. Mieke Eoyang and Matt Bennett have noted that while executive-branch officials must guzzle from the firehose of America’s vast foreign-policy priorities, unable to pay each issue its due attention, members of Congress can, over the course of years in office, steadily sip from the water fountain of one particular issue.

The need for more congressional involvement in foreign policy is especially apparent in the Age of Trump. His refusal to staff the Departments of State and Defense has left his administration without the senior subject-matter experts who might provide workable solutions, particularly during transitions or crises like Qatar.

As a former executive-branch appointee, I was no fan of Congress’s onerous reporting requirements or public hearings focused on politics over policy. Trump has shown the error of this thinking, revealing the need for serious foreign-policy voices to break through the chaos. With the President piloting our foreign policy into treacherous waters, it is time for members of Congress to seize the helm. Instead of being so antagonistic toward the executive branch, well-informed lawmakers can become the grown-ups, using their public profile to work with an administration to confront serious policy challenges or check the worse impulses of an over-active president.

Legislators from states with large air bases, like California or Nevada, whose residents are deployed to Qatar to help fight ISIS can reach out and mend fences with Qatari diplomats and government officials. Lawmakers can pay reassurance visits to foreign countries to temper blowback from Trump’s missteps. Members of Congress can work with state and local governments to strengthen relations with foreign jurisdictions and shore up America’s international priorities. Intelligence briefings from U.S. agencies can provide members with a better understanding of regional history or the changing nature of threats to U.S. interests.

One way to start building this expertise is by asking tough questions in the budget and confirmation hearings going on now and into the coming weeks. Members should ask: how are we prepared to project power into the Middle East in the face of fundamental risks to our facilities? What is the justification for improving facilities in countries that are unstable? How can we reduce tensions between Qatar, Oman, and the Saudi-led wing of the GCC? Questions like these allow members to hold the Trump administration accountable for their policies while building their own understanding of the complex foreign-policy issues we face.

As seen with Qatar, Trump’s erratic approach to foreign policy threatens U.S. interests and global stability. But if members of Congress will take more responsibility for America’s international relations, they can ensure that the president’s behavior doesn’t signal the end of American leadership abroad. 

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