The Founders in their wisdom divided the powers of government; some to the Executive, some to the Legislative. The power of the purse went to Congress; diplomacy to the Executive.
How that shakes out matters to the U.S. and our democratic allies.
The democracy of Israel, for example, had a good week with Congress. The Senate adopted, by unanimous consent (and 69 sponsors), a bill increasing coordination in the fields of missile defense, homeland security, energy, intelligence and cyber-security. It also called for enhancing Israel's qualitative military edge (QME), a difficult-to-measure state of affairs, but a concept that friends of Israel appreciate. The House already passed its version of the same legislation.
The practicality of the bill is striking: do things, share things, develop things, produce things, and protect things. These are security enhancements that can only be done with an ally. Congress wants to do them with Israel.
President Obama, on the other hand, has been doing diplomacy, which by its nature skirts the concrete. Many administrations, including this one, believe speech is action. Diplomats fear they won't get credit for damage avoided, so they often choose to produce no outcome all – just another meeting set for later – and never end the "process." Playing for compromise – or even a respectable loss – can be satisfactory. Talking can replace doing. That may work for the United States, a big country with room to maneuver when it makes mistakes, but Israel lives much closer to the edge. Diplomatic trouble can quickly become economic, political or military trouble.
The UN Security Council has not managed to have a discussion about Syria since April, but the President has finally figured out how to have the Council "briefed" on the subject by Navi Pillai – a renowned Israel-basher. The French wanted to discuss Syria. The Russians were willing only if the US-French-British adventure in Libya was on the docket. Rotating member Pakistan wanted to hang Israel. And so a deal was done – give up Israel for Syria – protecting the French, skirting the Russians, and accommodating our friends the Pakistanis. As a veto-wielding member, the U.S. could have nixed the program, but instead insisted only that the Syrian meeting be held in the morning and the Israel-bashing in the afternoon; Ms. Pillai will have time in between for lunch.
Read the unparalleled Anne Bayevsky for the details.
France, by the way, was the only European country to agree that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem should be listed as a Palestinian UNESCO Heritage Site. The US is not a member of the World Heritage Committee. Our delegate campaigned against the vote, but lost. We are accustomed to losing in the UN, and it seems not to bother us much as it should for a country that covers nearly a quarter of the U.N.'s payroll with a blank check, no questions asked (or, more accurately, no answers given).
In the UN Human Rights Council, our representative Eileen Donahoe again remonstrated the Council for its "biased and disproportionate focus on Israel, as exemplified by this standing agenda item."
The "standing agenda item" is Item 7, "Human Rights Situation in Palestine and other Occupied Arab territories." It mandates that every discussion in the Council have a component devoted to (castigating) Israel. Ms. Donahoe objects – but she knows (her boss, the President, knows) she will lose every time because she is sitting with the likes of Congo, Angola, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Qatar, Cuba, the PRC and Malaysia. Players rotate (terms on the Council are three years), but the number of countries with unspeakable human rights records far exceeds the number of democratic countries, and the number of countries that vote en bloc (Arab/Muslim/African) far exceeds the number voting independently. The Council will always contain a preponderance of authoritarian countries whose governments engage in human rights abuses and have nothing to lose by castigating Israel.
President Obama stated that the U.S. would engage the Syrian uprising in the context of UN-sponsored discussion and UN-sponsored plans. Over last weekend, the UN-sponsored Syria Action Group convened in Geneva. Neither the Syrian government nor the opposition attended. The final communiqué told both how to behave; both rejected the tutorial. The U.S. and Russia also have also publicly disagreed about the implications of the document.
We talk; they run out the clock.
Ditto Iran. The third P5+1 meeting with Iran was held last month in Moscow. The talks ended with the Iranians intractably proclaiming their "non-negotiable demands" and the West offering another round of "technical expert talks." As the talks failed, a new and heavier round of sanctions was slated to begin on 1 July. But as the date rolled around, the Obama administration gave waivers to 20 of Iran's biggest trading partners to allow them to continue to purchase Iranian oil.
More talk not followed by action – not even action required by U.S. legislation.
Granting that Congress gave the Executive Branch the waiver option, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen nonetheless criticized the administration for letting China off the hook. "The administration likes to pat itself on the back for supposedly being strong on Iran sanctions. But… (it) granted a free pass to Iran's biggest enabler, China." She pledged that "Congress will once again fill the leadership vacuum created by the administration, and work to strengthen sanctions against the regime in Tehran."
There are ways Congress can "fill the leadership vacuum" produced by the administration's determination to talk its way through the world's problems – even when large parts of the world prove immune to its charms. The most useful would be for Congress to continue to establish practical measures of cooperation with Israel, working with Israel as a partner in addressing the security threats faced by democratic countries large and small -- and, with the power of the purse the Constitution grants it, take the suggestion of Ambassador John Bolton: only "to pay for what we get, and get what we pay for" in funding the UN.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center. She was previously Senior Director for Security Policy at JINSA and author of JINSA Reports from 1995-2011.