Political Calamity is Contributing to US Foreign Policy Woes

March 18, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

The United States has become a conglomeration of political infighting where compromise is a dirty word and every major issue has political consequences.  It’s no surprise Washington has received the lowest approval numbers ever adjacent to the most unproductive Congresses ever in terms of enacted legislation.

This political jostling has not just affected domestic politics such as unemployment benefits, taxes, and farm subsidies, but has also contributed to the United States’ overall standing in the world.  Republican lawmakers are quick to point fingers at President Obama for his indecisiveness and timidity on issues such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Russia.  Republican dissenters blame the Obama administration for not foreseeing the rapid developments in Ukraine and Moscow yet, the situation in Russia surprised many leading experts.  Jane Harman, former representative from California and President of the Woodrow Wilson Center, stated last week at a policy forum on nuclear security that the Russian invasion surprised everyone at the Wilson Center.

While Obama’s policy in Syria appears to have run amok only to be saved by, ironically, Russia, the burden of his “blurred” red line response cannot be completely heaped upon him.  Several Republicans in and outside of Congress are questioning the president’s decisiveness.  Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani stated on a cable television appearance that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin does not wavier – he acts – whereas President Obama fails to act in a timely manner.  If President Obama had acted unilaterally in Syria with tactical strikes as he had planned to do, he would have received harsh criticism for conducting acts of war without Congressional approval – a potential violation of the Constitution.  The president, instead, attempted to offer an olive branch to Congress and let them decide even though he believed he had legal justification to act alone.  It was clear once the president passed the baton to Congress that if he did not receive the authorization needed, it would be disastrous for his international image.  However, at the time, Egypt had just ousted their democratically elected president in a much debated about coup and President Obama wanted to reiterate the importance of democracy to the world.

David Sanger of the New York Times wrote on Monday that several senior Obama officials who left after the first term stated, “that Mr. Obama erred in failing to have a plan to back up his declaration that President Bashar al-Assad had to leave office.”  The blame ultimately should fall on the shoulders of the president but in a tripartite constitutional system with separation of powers, the president does not deserve all of it.

Congress’ brinkmanship in the debt ceiling debacles that plagued Washington since 2010 have further contributed to uncertainty in the stock market (a truly devastating development given the fragility of the global economy right now) and the downgrading of the United States’ credit rating.  The events that took place last October, in which the federal government shut down, caused President Obama to miss a much anticipated trip to Asia to help broker a trade deal thus providing further alienation and skepticism to the president’s “pivot to Asia,” which to this point, seems to have taken a back seat to matters in the Middle East.  In addition, there have been talks by some nations of discontinuing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency given the shear difficulty of US lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling – a seemingly routine task that has made the US market unfriendly.

Today, foreign aid to Ukraine has also been stigmatized and spun by Washington politics.  In 2010, the G20 countries agreed to certain International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms.  The United States, to this point, has vetoed these reforms and has continued to stall their implementation since the reforms would give Russia a slightly larger voting share within the organization.  Two major concerns about the IMF currently are, “(1) that the size of the IMF’s resources has not kept pace with increased economic activity in the global economy; and (2) that the representation of emerging and developing economies at the IMF does not reflect their growing importance in the global economy.”  The reforms would seek to “increase the size of the IMF’s core source of funding (IMF “quota”), and increase the representation of emerging market and developing countries at the IMF to reflect more accurately their weight in the global economy.”

The House, earlier this month, passed an aid package to Ukraine equaling $1 billion dollars but they did not include IMF reform.  Late last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed an aid package of $1 billion that did include IMF reform but it is still uncertain whether the measure will pass on the floor of the Senate.  House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), has already condemned the Senate package and said, “The IMF money has nothing to do with Ukraine.”

The initial fight over IMF reform earlier this year is, again, attributed to partisan politics.  As POLITICO reported, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), joined IMF reform with certain new Treasury regulations regarding the IRS and tax-exempt organizations.  POLITICO noted that McConnell, who is up for reelection in 2014, is trying to appeal to the conservative base because “IRS guidelines are red meat for the right, which accuses Obama of wanting to protect his healthcare program.”  POLITICO also points out that, “U.S. trading partners are collateral damage in the political fight over the omnibus. More than three years after brokering an IMF deal in November 2010, Washington still can’t make good on its pledges and is holding up reforms promised to emerging economies like Brazil and India.”  It is possible that IMF reform may go on without US help, which would further alienate the US from the rest of the world.  As the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted, “Passing quota reform as part of the Ukraine aid package will preserve the credibility of the IMF and ensure that the United States retains leadership of the primary lender of last resort.”  This particular reform must be passed by Congress – the president cannot act alone.

President Obama’s foreign policy in his second term seems to be relying on old tricks and shifty nations, such as Russia, are not budging.  The president made mistakes in Syria, which may have emboldened other nations to act out.  But Congress is not exempt from the blame game and must stop hiding behind the power of the executive – an easy target to criticize for weakness and overreaching – it cannot be both ways.