Turf battle over foreign policy renewed

June 02, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton announced a new willingness to send U.S. ground forces to the Balkans, he inadvertently re-energized efforts by the Republican-led Congress to wrest more control over foreign policy from the White House.

Republicans are already seeking to cut foreign aid, reorganize the State Department and restrict the president's freedom to operate in overseas trouble spots. Mr. Clinton calls the moves an "assault" on his authority.

"This is a more far-reaching effort by Congress to impose on a president certain policies than we've seen in the last five or six decades," says Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a senior State Department and White House aide during the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Mr. Clinton said Wednesday that he was prepared to consider requests for U.S. ground troops in Bosnia to help strengthen and relocate the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), now under siege by the Bosnian Serb army.

But Mr. Clinton must fight to preserve his authority over a portion of foreign affairs in which he is most vulnerable: Not only has U.S. policy toward the Bosnian conflict never been popular, but Mr. Clinton's own history as an anti-war dissident has in the eyes of some diluted his moral authority to send troops into combat.

Even some of the administration's Democratic allies question Mr. Clinton's new willingness to dispatch troops to the Balkans. GOP reactions range from negative to scorching.

"Not on my watch," warned Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.

Rapid development

So rapidly did the latest crisis develop -- over a long holiday weekend and with Congress in recess -- that administration lobbyists had little time to explain Mr. Clinton's policy to the leadership before the president announced it.

"They're [the administration] going to get killed because they didn't lay the groundwork," said an aide to an influential Democrat.

A major challenge could materialize next week with hearings planned in the Senate. In addition, the House might vote on a measure, opposed by the White House, requiring the United States to ignore a U.N. arms embargo imposed on Bosnia's Muslim-led government.

The congressional debate will highlight a turf battle as old as the republic, the tug of war between the executive and legislative branches over the nation's foreign policy.

The Constitution allows the president to dispatch U.S. forces abroad. But Congress can refuse to pay for them and force them home. Only Congress can declare war, but presidents have waged two major American wars -- Korea and Vietnam -- without congressional declarations.

The president has the responsibility for negotiating with foreign countries, but Congress must ratify treaties. The president picks ambassadors, but Congress can block his choices.

Such overlapping powers, though often frustrating to chief executives and congressional leaders alike, were part of the Founding Fathers' grand design, says Abraham D. Sofaer, a former federal judge who was the State Department's chief lawyer in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

"They did not want a situation where either branch could dominate through exclusive authorities," he says.

This blending of authority has allowed power to flow back and forth between the White House and Capitol Hill over the past two centuries. When Congress strongly disagrees with a president, it can find ways to block even his most cherished policies, as Woodrow Wilson found when Congress failed to allow the United States join the League of Nations, which Wilson had helped create.

Presidents have found ingenious -- and at times legally questionable -- ways around Congress. Among the most creative presidents was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who arranged to swap destroyers for base-leasing rights with Winston Churchill when Congress blocked financial aid to Britain before America's entrance into World War II.

The Vietnam era produced a major power shift from the president to Congress. War opponents, led by Democrats, believed that Congress had been misled into supporting the huge U.S. military buildup in the late 1960s. Eventually, Congress not only cut off money for U.S. involvement in the conflict but went further to restrict presidential power.

War Powers Resolution

In 1973, it passed the War Powers Resolution to prevent presidents from dragging the country into a prolonged military action without explicit authority from the legislative branch.

One of the ironies of Mr. Clinton's struggle with Congress is that the GOP leadership wants to repeal the War Powers Resolution even as it tries in many other respects to box the president in.

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