Unauthorized Diplomacy — Where’s The Outrage?

December 15, 2006

I suppose certain puffed-up congressmen are feeling their oats since the election, but that’s no excuse for their unauthorized trips overseas to meet with leaders of foreign nations. This destructive practice must be stopped.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson traveled to Syria and met with its president, Bashar Assad, without the authority and contrary to the wishes of the Bush administration, including the State Department.

The well-known policy of the Bush administration is that the United States has limited diplomatic ties with the Syrian government because of its support for terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas, its support of terrorism and ethnic strife in Iraq, and its policy toward Lebanon.

The Constitution firmly places the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the hands of the executive branch because the Framers understood the pitfalls of conducting foreign policy by committee.

Legislators, no matter how personally popular or professionally respected, and irrespective of the wisdom or foolishness of the policies they are seeking to promote, have no business — as a matter of Constitutional law, historical practice and common sense — meeting with foreign leaders without executive permission. (Some would even argue that Nelson’s unilateral junket violates the Logan Act — which carries criminal penalties — but there’s insufficient space to address that here.)

It doesn’t matter that the Iraq Study Group recommended that we begin negotiating with the terrorist-sponsoring states of Syria and Iran in contravention of the Bush Doctrine. It doesn’t matter that most Democrats probably support the idea — even though they just won back both legislative houses. The president is still in office, and this is still his call.

The Democrats have been bellyaching for years about President Bush’s allegedly nefarious efforts “to consolidate power in the executive branch.” This has always been a bogus charge, but it is especially specious coming from Democrats, who are wholly comfortable with routine usurpations of legislative authority by activist federal judges and completely unbothered by Sen. Nelson’s trip.

Just think about it for a minute. A nation can’t effectively conduct foreign policy when it speaks with more than one voice any more than a private business can optimally negotiate a transaction when two of its principals are sending mixed signals to the other side. You must speak with one voice, or you will allow the other side to divide and conquer you.

Some may object that Sen. Nelson had every right to go because he is a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. To the contrary, such credentials enhance his apparent authority and make his actions more damaging.

Others may defend Nelson’s trip, saying he was not holding himself out as having any actual authority but simply wanted to open up a dialogue between our two nations. But that doesn’t excuse Nelson’s actions. He has no right even to open up a dialogue when it is the official policy of the United States not to initiate such a dialogue.

Of course Nelson was purporting to speak for the U.S. — at least for Bush’s political opponents. This wasn’t a social trip. He was clearly trying to influence Assad’s policy — he asked him to do more to stabilize Iraq. If nothing else, Nelson definitely sent a signal to Assad that powerful people in the U.S. disagree with the nation’s official policy and will do everything they can to change it.

And, of course, Assad is going to tell the hapless senator that he’ll cooperate because it makes President Bush look bad — at least to those who believe we should negotiate with terrorists.

This strengthens Assad’s hand and encourages him to play up the idea that Bush is stubbornly refusing to deal with him. Alternatively, it gives Assad tacit permission to continue to misbehave, with the hope that his actions will go unpunished as long as Democrats accede to the executive branch in 2008.

Sen. Kerry recently took a similar trip to Egypt. Other senators, including Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, are planning such trips in the future. We know about Sen. Kennedy’s dishonorable missions in the past.

But surely reasonable people, even those who disagree with Bush’s posture toward Syria, will understand that their preferred policy end does not justify the means of violating the Constitution and turning our foreign policy into a jumbled mess.

We are talking about vitally importa’t dismiss these trips so lightly, and the Bush administration must condemn them in stronger terms.