The Clinton Administration has been fairly criticized for sometimes lacking consistency and a sure hand in its foreign policy, but so far the newly ascendant congressional Republicans can't be said to be doing much better when it comes to offering coherent alternatives.
On such issues as Bosnia, possible U.S. participation in peace monitoring on the Golan Heights, continued aid to Russia and expansion of NATO, Republicans are far from being of one mind. Some have had thoughtful things to say about foreign relations--and some have spoken very foolishly--but on most issues of the day nothing that can be identified as a specifically Republican consensus has yet emerged.
All this is by way of background to the recent appearance of James A. Baker III before the House International Relations Committee. Baker, secretary of state under George Bush and one of the GOP's most respected foreign policy experts, wasn't there to trash the Clinton Administration's policies, though he didn't hide his disagreements with more than a few of them. Rather he was there to argue the need for the first Republican-majority Congress in 40 years to develop a productive working relationship in foreign affairs with the Democratic executive.
In particular Baker warned against efforts by Congress to try to micro-manage foreign policy. Such attempts "were a bad idea when the Democrats were in control, and they remain a bad idea today." Great care must be taken in trying to impose limits on presidential authority. The President, Baker insisted, must have discretion to act freely when he determines the national interest requires it.
The nation's strategic and economic interests require that complex relationships--most especially those with Japan and China--not be driven by any single issue, whether trade or human rights, the former Cabinet member said.
"It is vital," Baker testified, "that we speak to our enemies and to our allies alike in one voice." Certainly that should be the goal on those great issues where a perception of indecisiveness or confusion could invite calamitous misjudgment about American resolve or readiness to act. But certainly, too, no approach to foreign policy can or should seek to stifle full discussion or inhibit scrutiny of the executive's actions.
Baker would undoubtedly agree that the Democrats had every right to criticize the Reagan and Bush administrations' policies in Central America. His objection was to efforts by congressional Democrats to substitute the legislature's will for the executive's in the actual conduct of the nation's foreign relations.
Clearly there are Republicans in Congress who would eagerly try to impose their approach to the world--to micro-manage, as Baker put it--on some aspects of foreign policy. Baker's is a voice of experience warning against that effort. It's a voice that deserves to be heeded.