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Skewed Partnership Stifles Foreign Policy

August 30, 1987|BRUCE FEIN | Bruce Fein is a visiting fellow in constitutional studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington

Ronald Reagan's woolly address last week on U.S.-Soviet relations corroborates the descent of his presidency into emptiness.

He neglected the greatest weakness in the nation's national security armor: uninformed and vacillating statutory intrusions on presidential prerogatives. He evoked false hopes of a cure for Soviet truculence and paranoia--remember KAL 007 and the brutish murder of U.S. Maj. Arthur Nicholson in East Germany?--through incantation of glasnost . And he forfeited the opportunity to teach the American people what President George Washington instructed two centuries ago: the best guardian of peace is resolute preparation for war.

The lesson of the Yalta accords is simple. Military muscle and unflagging resolution are indispensable to curbing Soviet adventurism.

The accords were flouted and a Soviet-manufactured Iron Curtain descended on Eastern Europe. Events since confirm that the Soviets will employ naked force whenever they perceive it will yield an advantage. An equal or greater counterforce must be the centerpiece of America's national security policy.

The weak pillar in the strategy is Congress. It lacks the institutional characteristics the Founding Fathers thought imperative for success on the international stage: intelligence, speed, energy, secrecy and continuity. These are attributes of the presidential office. But Vietnam and the discredited Nixon presidency impelled Congress to the enactment of foolish multiple legal shackles in the execution of foreign policy: the War Powers Resolution of 1973, sharp limits on covert action and unconstitutional legislative vetoes of proposed arms sales.

During the Reagan presidency, the ever-changing, feckless Boland Amendment and limits on military advisers in El Salvador have confounded policy in Central America. And the growing custom of congressional foreign policy excursions undermines deterrence of Soviet aggression or military dominance.

Congress is edging toward employing the power of the purse to compel the President's adherence to the unratified SALT II treaty, nuclear and anti-satellite test ban proposals offered by the Soviet Union and a so-called "narrow" interpretation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty that would vex development of strategic defense options. These bills catapult Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev into the negotiating catbird's seat by enabling him to exploit the institutional infirmities of Congress in foreign affairs.

Congressional votes on national security measures reflect more feelings of the heart than sober judgments of the head. Congressional support for SALT II and the ABM treaty reflect a natural yearning for international peace, but neglect the unsentimental realities of Soviet behavior that is indifferent to treaty commitments.

Congressional statutes addressing foreign affairs are unfailingly carping, timid and insular. There are few incentives for Congress to initiate or support energetic international gambits because the political rewards for success crown the President. Most congressmen applaud a torpid foreign policy because inaction or non-involvement seldom disturbs their constituents or chances of reelection. Thus, Congress warmly embraced neutrality legislation in the 1930s that encouraged aggression in Europe, Africa, Asia and ultimately Pearl Harbor.

The War Powers Resolution is similarly flaccid. It generally proscribes preemptive military action that might avoid calamity or save countless American lives, comparable to the Israeli preemptive destruction of the Egyptian air fleet in 1967. A California congressman, Tony Coelho (D-Merced), is seeking a judicial declaration with more than 100 of his colleagues that the muscular presence of the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf violates the resolution.

Impatience for tangible results before the next election cycle also disables Congress from a constructive foreign policy role. Its actions are ordinarily provisional, mercurial and short-winded. Thus in 1979 and 1980, Congress provided $120 million to support the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. It then made an about-face in 1983 and provided $24 million in contra military aid. Military funding for the rebels then ceased in 1984 and 1985, but $27 million in humanitarian aid and limited information-sharing was authorized. In 1986, $100 million in military and humanitarian aid was appropriated, but prospects for further contra funding in 1987 are questionable.

The Sandinistas needed 18 years of sustained Cuban and Soviet support before ousting, in collaboration with other groups, strongman Anastasio Somoza. And the Sandinistas continue to receive lavish military aid from the Soviet bloc that dwarfs U.S. funding of the contras. To a congressman, however, supporting an insurgency for two decades or more before positive results is unfathomable.

Foreign policy will malfunction unless by customary deference the President plays the role of general partner and Congress the role of limited partner.

If President Reagan were serious about the remainder of his term, he would forthrightly expound to the American people and Congress on the institutional adjustments necessary to forging and executing sober-eyed but effective national security policy: a Chief Executive with breathing space to confront the imponderables and roughness of international affairs.

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