From Reagan to Clinton, both Democrats and Republicans have tried to sabotage the other party’s foreign policy.
The senator was outraged. Congress had challenged the foreign policy of the president, ignoring that he is “the sole person to whom our Constitution gives the responsibility for conducting foreign relations.”
It was “an unconstitutional encroachment on the presidential prerogatives and power,” he fumed.
The words may sound like they come from a Capitol Hill Democrat, reacting to the Senate Republican letter to Iran’s leaders about their nuclear talks with President Obama. On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement that those lawmakers were attempting to “undercut our President and circumvent our constitutional system.”
In fact, the angry speaker was Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah — reacting in 1987 to Congress’s passage of the Boland Amendment, cutting off U.S. aid to Nicaragua’s Contra rebels against the vehement wishes of President Ronald Reagan. (Some of those aides would ignore the ban, later producing the Iran-Contra scandal).
Experts say the Senate GOP’s Iran letter may be an unprecedented breach of foreign policy protocol both in its form and its boldness. But national security has long been a fierce battleground between Congress and the White House — and both parties have accused the other of sabotaging foreign policy goals.
Recall the bilious battles over the Iraq War, particularly after Democrats captured Congress in 2006 with promises to force Bush to withdraw troops from Iraq. As Democrats sought to force withdrawal timelines on the White House, some conservatives sarcastically referred to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “General Pelosi.”
Pelosi and Bush also butted heads in the spring of 2007 on Syria policy. Against the White House’s wishes, the House Democratic leader traveled to Damascus to meet with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. (Pelosi hoped that Assad could be moderated through engagement; Bush was intent on isolating the Syrian dictator.) “The president is the one who conducts foreign policy, not the speaker of the House,” then- Vice President Dick Cheney groused to Rush Limbaugh.
Some conservatives even asked whether Pelosi might be prosecutable under the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. This week, the shoe was on the other foot, with some Democrats asking whether the Republicans who signed the letter may have violated the Logan Act.
Can a Republican Congress stop a nuclear arms control agreement it doesn’t like some other way? Just ask Bill Clinton: In 1999, Clinton’s White House was stunned when a GOP-led Senate rejected an international nuclear test ban treaty he’d signed three years earlier.
The New York Times said the vote — the Senate’s first rejection of a foreign treaty since 1920 — had “crushed one of President Clinton’s major foreign policy goals.” Clinton called the defeat of that pact, known as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, “reckless partisanship” that posed risks “to the safety of the American people and the world.”
When Clinton asked Congress to support his 1999 bombing campaign over Kosovo, which was already underway, he urged GOP leaders to show that America “speak[s] with a single voice abroad.” But Congress refused to grant him its approval, and for good measure added a ban on ground troops that Clinton wasn’t even thinking of sending.
The fight between Reagan and Congressional Democrats in the 1980s over Nicaragua’s anti-communist Contras was as bitter as any of those disputes, and included charges of political sabotage from the White House against Democrats.
In late 1987 Jim Wright, then the Democratic House Speaker, met with Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega amid sensitive peace talks between Ortega’s government and the Contra rebels. At the time, Republican Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas suggested that Wright’s personal diplomacy might have violated the Logan Act, and Reagan later personally dressed Wright down in a private meeting.
“There have been many bitter battles” over the years, said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. But, he added, the tone of Monday’s letter to Iran from 47 Republican Senators may be in a league of its own.
“What’s unusual about this — but completely in tune with what’s happened in Washington in recent years — is the contempt with which it treats the president,” Mann said.