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The President and Congress--Foreign Policy Roundtable - 2003-01-09

On Focus, VOA's Victor Morales leads a roundtable discussion on the foreign policy issues facing the new Congress and the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of American government.

MR. MORALES: When it comes to U.S. foreign affairs, the Executive Branch of government -- the President -- typically determines policy for the country. And under our system of checks and balances, the Congress keeps a close eye on the President's agenda.

But last November, President Bush's Republican Party won majorities in both houses of Congress.

How will that affect America's stand on foreign affairs?

Joining me to examine U.S. foreign policy and the new Congress are: David Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union -- the nation's oldest and largest grassroots conservative political organization. And, Stephen Hess -- Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.

Stephen Hess, let me begin with you. How will Republican control of the Congress and the White House play out in terms of foreign policy?

MR. HESS: When it comes to foreign policy, generally that is the President's chance to take the initiative. Usually only when he gets in trouble does the Congress step in there. This President -- who, after all, was elected with very little foreign policy experience or expectations and a platform that tended to want to keep foreign policy on the back burner, nevertheless, everything has changed, absolutely, totally changed with 9/11 -- his response to that just sparked a sense of confidence in him in the American people. And that was shown very clearly in the midterm election, where presidents usually lose seats, and this one didn't. So, I think he is in the driver's seat on this, and we will see what happens. It is a complicated year.

MR. MORALES: David Keene?

MR. KEENE: I think Steve is right about that. It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that any president has a free hand in terms of foreign policy, but this president has a freer hand than most, not just because both houses are controlled by majorities from his own party but because both parties and the American people seem to have the confidence that Steve talked about. Now, he could mess it up. Things could go south on him very badly, and everything could change. Because the one thing we also know about our system is that, if anybody sees a weakness, they go for it. But right now, there isn't any serious questioning of the direction that George Bush wants to take the country in terms of foreign and defense policy.

MR. MORALES: What about Iraq, can we expect a blank check there?

MR. KEENE: You never get a blank check, but you have something approaching a blank check, with both parties and the majority of members of both parties agreeing that if military action is necessary, it should be taken. So, the President has all the authority that he needs to do what he wants to do should he decide that it is going to require the use of actual force rather than simply a show of force. So, I do think that, again, until he messes it up or until something else happens, he has pretty much a free hand in dealing with Iraq. And what he said he is going to do is probably what he is going to do if he does not get some changes in what is going on over there.

MR. HESS: There are some things that are very different now than they were in Vietnam. First of all, we have an all-volunteer army. I think that makes a difference. The people there who are our professional soldiers are there because they want to be there. Secondly, this follows an invasion of the United States -- that is, 9/11. So, people feel very much a personal stake in these international events right now. And I think also the technology of war has changed. It is much more likely that this would be a very fast action.

MR. MORALES: Richard Lugar is set to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And as I recall, he challenged the administration in terms of Iraq. Can we expect smooth cooperation between the Senate and the White House?

MR. KEENE: Frankly, I expect that you will get cooperation between Dick Lugar and the White House. Lugar has differences. Obviously, he has given a lot of thought to his approach to foreign policy. But he is a team player. And as Steve said earlier, the President usually has the lead on these matters, particularly with members of his own party. I don't see President Bush facing much problem from Dick Lugar, any more than he would have had Jesse Helms remained on as chairman.

MR. MORALES: Steve Hess, President Clinton, as recently as last month, made the assessment that the Democrats lost control of Congress in large measure for failing to make the case that they could handle national security issues. Do you agree with that assessment?

MR. HESS: Yes, I think that is probably true. Now, I don't know how they could have made the case. They weren't in control on 9/11, and the President's responses were very sharp, very wise, and very correct, as assessed by the American people. So, I don't know quite what he means that way. But I think clearly the President helped in a measurable way to bring success to the midterm election to the Republican Party because of the sense of leadership he had brought on national security.

MR. KEENE: And he went even further than that, Steve. Obviously, he helped them because of his popularity. He helped Republicans because of his handling of foreign policy and defense. But he put all his chips in the middle of the table. He went out there. He knew that if he lost seats, regardless of history, he was going to be blamed. And he decided to go out and fight to either stop the loss that would be historically expected or to get a gain. He gambled it all and he won.

MR. HESS: I think that's right. I think he is a high-risk player.

MR. KEENE: Yes. And presidents don't usually do that.

MR. HESS: Yes. But the great presidents do. And that is what is so interesting about it. I think even the change of leadership, from Trent Lott to Bill Frist, seeing an opening there and knowing that he could play the card and have a leader much more in keeping with what he liked and of a much more charismatic nature, he moved in and made a brutal statement from Trent Lott's point of view about his own majority leader. Now, that is a high-risk operation for a president to be involving himself in a Senate contest in that way. This man [President Bush] assignments.neb-wire is so underestimated abroad, partly because he is not elegant in the way he articulates things. We elect people who have all sorts of rhetorical skills. It is just a question of how you reach people, how you communicate with them.

MR. MORALES: We'll have to leave it there. I would like to thank my guests: David Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union; and Stephen Hess, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.