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Despised and content

The Senate is now in Republican control, but when it comes to the debate over war with Iraq, does it matter? Brave New World by Michael Moran.

Many around the world wonder, in the wake of the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate, how the debate on a new war with Iraq will be affected. Along with the American Left, the world frets that nothing now can stop an administration with little use for the United Nations. Meanwhile, Pat Buchanan’s partisans - let’s call them the “isolationist Right” - are doubly concerned: first by the prospect of yet another foreign entanglement, second by the awful reality that U.S. troops may again fight under U.N. authorization. Yet all of them miss the point. The modern Senate is a rubber stamp on foreign-policy issues, regardless of whether the stamp is held by Democrats or Republicans.

Left, right or center, no senator or group of them was going to have any effect on the Bush team’s plans for Iraq. Those plans will proceed, or not proceed, according to the whims of the chief executive.

The Senate, whose “advice and consent” is allegedly needed to wage war, ceased to exist as a player in American foreign policy long before it resolved to give George W. Bush the power to fight terrorism anyway he sees fit.

Anyone who expected the Democratic Party — or anyone within the U.S. Congress, for that matter — to force a debate on Iraq during an election campaign pinned their hopes on a mirage. It’s a losing issue, and in today’s atmosphere, you do not find many politicians willing to say what they think when polls suggest they may be punished for it. Of the notable exceptions in the last Senate, Democrats Paul Wellstone and Republicans Fred Thompson, John McCain and Jesse Helms, two (Thompson and Helms) are now retired and another dead. That leaves McCain, who on this particular issue happens to be firmly with the president.


It was not always thus. No less a man than James Madison, during America’s Constitutional Convention in 1787, noted that “the Senate is to have the power of making treaties and managing our foreign affairs.” Foreign policy was to be made with the “advice and consent” of the Senate, and it also was to be the pivotal institution of government when the question of war arose.

For the first century of U.S. history, it was so. In the decade of rancor that preceded the Civil War, great statesmen like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster led the struggle to try to prevent that tragedy, largely unaided by the weak figures who inhabited the White House at the time. It was during a Senate campaign that a relatively unknown candidate named Abraham Lincoln debated the incumbent, Stephen Douglas, and gained his national following. (Although Lincoln would lose the Senate race in 1858, he would beat Douglas out in the 1860 race for the presidency.)

Later, after the United States defeated Spain in a war and found itself suddenly holding Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, the decision over whether the America would become a colonial power or grant the territories independence raged for weeks in the Senate. As the historian Robert A. Caro notes, the Senate not only ran American foreign policy, it made sure that “during the entire 19th century, most secretaries of state were former senators.”


It was only in the 20th century that presidents began to wrest back the kind of power that Thomas Jefferson wielded in the early days of the republic — power that allowed him, with the stroke of a pen, for instance, to purchase the Louisiana Territories from France and double the size of the nation.

Why power flowed so dramatically from the once-imperial Senate to the now imperial presidency has been the subject of countless books and studies. The 1898 war with Spain left America a far-flung empire, and battles fought to protect the Panama Canal’s shipping lanes or against anti-colonial rebels in the Philippines left no time for debate.

Much attention, too, has been paid to the tremendous growth of the executive branch bureaucracy, first as the state and war departments ballooned during the two world wars and then, during the Cold War, with the birth of new players subservient to the executive - the National Security Council in 1947, and the “intelligence community” soon after that. As Stephen Skowrenek writes in “The Politics Presidents Make,” a president naturally seeks to “confirm during the exercise of his power his own presentiments about his place in history.” By about 1950, all the levers necessary to do so were in place.

They have not faltered since. Johnson used them to get his way in 1964 with the Tonkin Gulf resolution; Nixon to have his, invading Laos and Cambodia; and Reagan in arming rebel movements from Nicaragua to Afghanistan. Even Clinton pushed the divisive NAFTA treaty through the Congress before his personal failings destroyed his agenda. Modern presidents run foreign policy virtually unchecked.


So why has the Senate’s ability to help shape the nation’s foreign policy - and to demand that issues of war and peace be subjected to intensive debate - withered so dramatically?

Historians generally trace the roots of this decay to 1919, when Congress prevented the United States from entering the League of Nations — this despite the fact that the organization was the brainchild of American President Woodrow Wilson.

Britain and France deserve the blame for the disastrous Versailles Treaty that ended World War I, and for sitting on their hands as Hitler used resentment of the treaty to plot his evil. But America’s absence from the debate was an act of the Senate, or, more accurately, a failure to act.

And it only got worse. Consider these statements from leading Republican senators on the eve of World War II as they criticized Franklin Roosevelt for trying to aid Britain’s war against Hitler.

1940: “The president confuses the defense of Britain with the defense of the United States.” - Sen. Robert Taft, R-Ohio.

1941: “There is no reason why we should not have peaceful relations with the rest of the world if we cease playing the role of Meddlesome Mattie.” - Sen. Arthur Kapper, R-Kansas.

The Senate never has recovered from the disgrace of those years. Presidents after Roosevelt, with some justification, moved quickly to write the Senate out of the script of foreign policy. From the Korean War onward, no president ever has asked Congress for anything more than political cover for launching a new war. Does anyone believe the Vietnam War would have been averted if Johnson lost the Tonkin Gulf vote? Would the Gulf War have been halted if Democratic opponents had prevailed in the 1990 vote? Not likely.

George W. Bush may or may not ultimately send American troops into Iraq again. This much is certain, though: Whatever he decides, he will do without the “advice” or “consent” of the Senate, and that seems to suit the Senate just fine.