Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Political Meddling in Foreign Policy

Political interference in foreign policy is nothing new in American history. Despite an unspoken maxim of a nation united in dealing with foreign countries, U.S. history is replete with examples of political self-dealing.

The latest examples:

  • The unilateral invitation by House Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress and denounce a nuclear deal being negotiated by President Obama with Iran.
  • The letter signed by 47 Republican senators telling Iranian leaders the nuclear deal they are negotiating with Obama could be worthless after he leaves office.

There are more examples. Presidential candidate Richard Nixon sent a private message to South Vietnamese leaders that caused them to pull out of peace talks engineered by President Lyndon Johnson with the North Vietnamese. A peace treaty may have salvaged the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey. Disintegration of the peace talks doomed his chances.

There appears to have been communication between the Ronald Reagan presidential political camp and Islamic revolutionary leaders in Tehran who held hostages and further soured public opinion about President Carter. After Carter’s defeat by Reagan, the prisoners were released.

Washington's Farewell AddressMark Perry, writing in Politico Magazine, says political intrigue in foreign policy dates back to George Washington’s presidency. Bedeviled by political squabbling between pro-French Thomas Jefferson and pro-English Alexander Hamilton, Washington warned in his famous farewell address against “a passionate attachment of one Nation for another.” In understated fashion, the Father of America said such an attachment “produces a variety of evils.”

The genesis of Washington’s warning, Perry explains, was political stumping by French Ambassador Edmund Genet, who landed in Charleston and proceeded to Philadelphia as “Citizen Genet” seeking as he went to curry American support for France in its war against England.

Not surprisingly, Washington gave Genet a cool reception when he arrived. Perry says that prompted Genet to outfit a captured British ship as a French privateer, which violated U.S. neutrality in the conflict, further infuriating Washington.

boehner_netanyahu_ap_660The similarity between the stumping Genet and Netanyahu addressing Congress may have caused North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, a Republican, to read Washington’s farewell address into the Congressional Record on the former President’s birthday. Maybe he didn’t fully grasp what he read because a few days later Hoeven was one of the senators who signed the letter to Iran’s Islamic leaders.

It is worth adding a footnote that Washington’s farewell address was heavily influenced, if not actually written, by Hamilton and James Madison, Jefferson’s alter ego. The result was a dispassionate and dignified speech that stated a clear political principle that soared above the political fray of factions.

Internal debate on foreign policy is healthy and necessary to chart a course for the country. Obama staked out a clear departure from the George W. Bush presidency. Events have conspired for Obama to tack closer to Bush’s strategy than he may have wished, but he offered a choice to Americans and they took it.

d80d8138-f67b-4879-a2f4-bc3caa7a91afThe wide-open 2016 presidential election should feature a full-scale debate on foreign policy as the United States attempts to find the right balance of interests in the intrigue-filled Middle East and in dealing with a pugnacious Russia, a hard-charging China and a faltering European Union. America has emerging interests in Africa, still-scarred relationships in Latin America and a festering border issue with Mexico. And we must navigate in a world of proliferating nuclear capabilities.

Voter ability to weigh nuanced arguments on foreign policy may be limited, but they still deserve a robust, principled debate on the choices we have. Even if voters as a whole are unable to divine the best policy choice, they are able to determine and choose policies and candidates who argue for the national interest, rather than for factional or political gain.

The politically motivated Netanyahu invitation and the patronizing letter to Iranian leaders are a discouraging start for the looming campaign.


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