Bush Surrendering Presidential Prerogative?
Ed Morrissey is quite dismayed by the shake-up in the Bush foreign policy team marked by the ouster of Donald Rumsfeld, resignation of John Bolton, and now the transfer of Iraq envoy Zalmay Khalilizad. Given that Democrats and a handful of RINOs wanted to see a shakeup, this looks to Ed suspiciously like Bush giving up the fight.
Pardon me, but the presidency carries with it certain prerogatives, among them the power to determine the foreign policy of the United States. In fact, it’s one of the chief responsibilities of the office, and normally Presidents are given the leeway to determine the people best suited to carry it out. The treatment of John Bolton was unprecedented — the rejection of a political appointment in the foreign service not because of any disqualifying event, but because the Senate didn’t like the policy of the administration.
It’s a serious breach of the separation between the branches of government. Congress does not dictate foreign policy nor should they veto ambassadorships unless the nominee has no qualifications to the position. Bolton has years of service in foreign policy, and has demonstrated his ability to conduct the affairs of the US at the United Nations for the last year. It sets an awful precedent: Congress just invalidated the 2004 Presidential election that put foreign policy in Bush’s hands.
Both as a general principle and in the case of Bolton specifically, I believe presidents deserve to have their appointees receive an up-or-down vote in the Senate. While the filibuster and other obstructionist techniques have a long history, they are extra-constitutional and should be reserved for only the most fundamental policy disputes.
Still, the idea that the Constitution gives the president carte blanche on matters of foreign policy is simply wrong. The Constitution provides for some major checks and balances in both foreign and military affairs. The president is commander in chief of the armed forces but Congress declares war and raises the army and navy. The president negotiates treaties but they only go into effect if they are ratified by two thirds of the Senate. The president appoints ambassadors but they must be confirmed by the Senate.
By the nature of executive power’s consolidation into a single individual, the president has a natural advantage. The president can set events into motion by, say, ordering the military to deploy and use force and, as a practical matter, it is then very difficult for Congress to cut off funds and force him to bring them home. Through abuse of the recess appointment power (which was intended for an era when Congress was in session for only short periods, not the full time body it has become since the advent of air conditioning), as happened in Bolton’s case, or the negotiation of executive agreements, presidents can in effect bypass much of Congress’ authority. (For a more detailed discussion, see my TCS article “Real Power Is Something You Take.”)
Let’s not confuse reality with design, however. The Framers clearly intended for foreign policy to be “an invitation to struggle” between the Executive and Legislature. In recent decades, the president has been winning that struggle, with only minor corrections in the other direction when Congress gets its dander up over what it perceives as executive abuse.
As to whether Bush is giving up the fight here, I see no evidence of that. He has already signaled that he has no intention of major changes in direction in Iraq, Baker Commission or Congress be damned.
Still, the war has clearly not gone well, has dragged on much longer than he would have liked, and has been an anchor around his neck, draining his political capital and making it impossible to achieve any of his other policy goals. He was re-elected despite the war in 2004 and lost both Houses of Congress weeks ago largely because of it. Perhaps recognition of these facts and some course corrections as a result of that is a good thing?
UPDATE: Steven Taylor notes, too, that “policy is not people, it is ideas. While a given person may be more efficacious at executing a given policy than someone else, the real issue is whether there are good ideas being deployed.”