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New U.S. Congress to Shape Foreign Policy


On Thursday, the 110th Congress of the United States will be sworn into office. 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 lost majorities in both houses of Congress to the opposition Democrats.

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

Joining me to examine U.S. foreign policy and the new Congress are: Will Marshall -- president of the Progressive Policy Institute, which seeks to define and promote liberal politics here in the United States. And, David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union -- the nation's oldest and largest grassroots conservative political organization.

David Keene, let me begin with you. How will Democratic control of Congress play out in terms of foreign policy?

MR. KEENE: The major issue on the minds of voters was their dissatisfaction with the management of the Iraq War and the fact that there's no apparent end in sight. The Bush administration, from the beginning, said that this is going to be a long struggle. But they didn't have a plan, which you need in a democratic society, to make sure the people are with you during the course of the long struggle. Voters got frustrated, they didn't see an end, they didn't think it was being all that well managed. And the Democrats benefitted greatly from that. The problem that the Democrats now have is that to some degree their base really turned out [at the polls], it was really motivated because they wanted to get them [i.e., the Republicans] out and end this war. And as a result, they [i.e., the Democrats] bought a part of the war [i.e., are now at least partly responsible for the outcome of the war]. And they have some joint responsibility, but they don't have a position and they don't really know what to do about it.

MR. MORALES: Will Marshall, let me ask you the same question. Are we going to see some major foreign policy changes with regard to Iraq and, say, the war on terror?

MR. MARSHALL: I think we've already seen them. This election was not a vote for the Democratric alternative; it was a vote against the Republican record with Iraq certainly being at the top of the list of the problems the public had with the Republican regime in Washington. So already, you had a kind of vote of no confidence, which is why the administration is casting about for something different. So I see a very corrosive debate opening up on the Republican side -- a kind of a "Who lost Iraq?" debate. It has been simmering under the surface for the last year or so and now it's about to break out.

MR. KEENE: I think that debate is going to be caustic across the board. The Democrats, for example, seized on the Iraq Study Group report, which essentially argues that the whole thing that is going on [in Iraq] is the result of Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- that Sunnis are killing Shi'ites in Iraq largely because we can't solve the Israeli problem. And that's going to come to the fore of the debate later on. I think the fact is that the [American] people were and are upset with the conduct of the war. The problem now with the Democrats -- and we saw this in the elections -- is they benefitted from that, but didn't have to say anything. The fact is that if you look at the real conclusions of the [Iraq] Study Group and others is that we have a dangerous world; we have a war that's not going well. And I'm not sure that either the authors of the Iraq Study Group report -- from both sides of the aisle [i.e., Democrats and Republicans] -- or members of Congress from either side of the aisle or people in the White House really know what they ought to be doing and how to get it right. And I think that discussion is going to take place and is going to be overlain with ideological and partisan considerations that are going to make it difficult to come out with any kind of a clean resolution.

MR. MORALES: Will Marshall, let me ask you: Will pragmatism win out over ideology for the Democrats in Congress?

MR. MARSHALL: I think it already has in the early tests. David's right. Both parties are really convulsed and divided by Iraq. I actually think the long knives are out and are sharper on the Republican side [i.e., the debate will be more intense among Republicans]. But there's no question that the left wing of the Democratic Party interpreted the election results as vindication of their argument that we ought to have gotten out of Iraq yesterday. But I don't think that's where the public has been. The public has been conflicted. They don't think the Bush administration has a plan for success in Iraq, but they haven't been terribly receptive to the idea that we should just get out and abandon our responsibilities to the Iraqi people and to our own security interests in making sure we don't leave a situation behind that presents an intolerable offense to the country [i.e., the United States].

MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, we have about a minute left and I would like to ask each of you, beginning with David Keene: What should a foreign audience take away from our conversation today in terms of learning about how American government works?

MR. KEENE: The one thing I always say to people, whether in this country or abroad, is don't look at the results of an American election and conclude that that those results simply underscore what you want them to demonstrate because they're a lot more complicated than that. And I think we're entering into a period when -- if things work out right, both domestically and internationally -- the parties [i.e., the Democrats and Republicans] may be able to work a little better together. If they don't, we're going to be in for more partisanship and more fights over the course of the next few years.

MR. MORALES: And Will Marshall, you get the last word.

MR. MARSHALL: I think the big lesson of this election, Victor, was that you can only get away with divorcing ideology and partisan politics from governing successfully for so long. I think the Bush administration got away with it for too long, principally because of its huge advantage on security issues before this election. But what happened was that the governance wasn't working. The Republicans were spending too much, they weren't grappling with the big problems, they were messing up in Iraq. So this election was an accountability moment.

MR. KEENE: I think that's right.

MR. MARSHALL: It was an opportunity for the voters to say, "We don't think you're doing a good job. This is not an ideological decision; it's a pragmatic judgment. And we're willing to let the other side have a shot [i.e., a chance to lead], even though we're not entirely confident in them either."

MR. MORALES: We'll have to end it there. I would like to thank my guests: David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, and Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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    Victor Morales

    Victor Morales is Senior Analyst for the Voice of America, where he has reported on U.S. and international affairs for more than two decades.  He is the former head of VOA’s Focus New Analysis Unit and VOA Learning English.  He also hosted the agency’s premier public affairs talk shows, Encounter and Press Conference, USA, and anchored the leading English news program, VOA News Now.

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