In our democratic policy process, there is an obvious link between popular sentiment and our elected leaders. However, matters can be somewhat murky when it comes to foreign policy. That’s due in part to the deference paid by the people and Congress to the president’s role in acting and speaking for the nation, at least at the outset of international incidents. It is also due in part to the public’s low level of knowledge and interest in foreign affairs.
President John F. Kennedy perhaps best explained why foreign policy should be treated differently. In a Salt Lake City speech in September 1963, he said, “The purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world.”
Still, Congress and public opinion do come into play whenever an international crisis erupts. The current crisis involving Russian military intervention in Ukraine helps illuminate the complex dynamic at the intersection of the presidency, Congress and the people.
President Barack Obama’s policy of not providing lethal military assistance to Ukraine while working with our allies to marshal diplomatic and economic pressures against Russia is consistent with his overall foreign policy approach. If there is an emerging Obama Doctrine it involves encouraging multilateral action when the U.S. is not directly threatened. The reluctance to reengage militarily anywhere is consonant with the wishes of Congress and the people in the weary wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A late April poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal showed 45 percent disapproval of the president’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, and only 37 percent approval — a turnaround from an early March poll by the same pollster showing a 43 percent-41 percent approval-disapproval breakdown. A larger number in the most recent poll, 53 percent, disapprove the president’s overall handling of foreign policy, with just 38 percent approving.
Foreign affairs analyst Robert Kagan surmises that this paradox of greater dissatisfaction with the president’s overall handling of foreign policy compared to his specific policies can be attributed to public unhappiness with America’s perceived retreat as leader of the free world.
That same late April NBC/WSJ poll showed 47 percent favored a less active U.S. role in world affairs, 19 percent favored a more active role, and 30 percent favored current levels of involvement. However, 55 percent agreed we need a president “who will present an image of strength that shows America’s willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles.” Just 39 percent felt we need a president who shows a more open approach and willingness to negotiate with friends and foes alike.
On Ukraine, this ambivalence over foreign policy played out in Congress, with some members noisily criticizing the president for not providing more military aid to Ukraine and for not imposing tougher sanctions on the Russians, while others were quietly content to use less dramatic means to defuse the situation. Congress moved haltingly in the early days of the crisis, balking at the administration’s requested reforms in the International Monetary Fund to better deal with economic crises like Ukraine.
What started as a more ambitious 40-page bill devolved into two modest laws totaling 12 pages. One provided $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine, authorized $50 million in democracy support, and imposed mandatory targeted sanctions on the Russians. The other authorized (but did not appropriate) an additional $10 million in stepped-up Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America broadcasts to the region. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said of the broadcast booster: “As drafted, it is an unfunded mandate.”
The public was probably unaware of either enactment because the measures tiptoed through and around committees of jurisdiction without recorded votes or reports and then passed both chambers overwhelmingly without controversy, fanfare or signing ceremony. For Congress the watchwords were bipartisan, “first step” and presidential support, while it stayed far enough back should anything go wrong. It might be called, “following from behind.”
It is hard to grasp how the most transparent branch of government can sometimes stutter-step so stealthily. But, as a reactive and representative body it is simply reflecting in a mirror dimly the people’s mixed mindset.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.