COVID-19 puts a damper on the presidential foreign policy show

The recent reports on President Trump’s foreign policy efforts have been brutal. A few weeks ago excerpts from a book by John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, portrayed the President floundering at foreign policy—terribly.

John and Jane Q. Public have learned that Russia, whose autocratic leader the President has been solicitous, paid bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops. Also revealed last week was that Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders often have been wet hot messes, complete with rambling, misstatements of fact, and counterproductive results. Were all that not enough, Americans have been reminded that the President’s much ballyhooed courting of North Korea failed. Rocket man Kim Jong Un still holds his nuclear weapons and may well bequeath them to his heir.

This is not the way presidents want their re-election years to go. The presidency has become synonymous with foreign policy. Which explains why presidents and presidential aspirants go to incredible lengths to try to prove they have foreign policy cred.

I was reminded of this truth when I recently read Joan Didion’s 1988 essay, “Shooters Inc.” She described the efforts being made to make Vice President George H.W. Bush looks sufficiently presidential for the 1988 election. Bush, of course, had extensive foreign policy experience, but the public tends to forget such things.

To remind voters, all sorts of foreign policy travel opportunities were cooked up. Didion relates that Bush journeyed to Israel and made stops “at the Western Wall, at the Holocaust memorial, at David Ben-Gurion’s tomb, and at 32 other locations chosen to produce campaign footage illustrating that George Bush was, as Marlin Fitzwater, at the time vice-presidential press secretary, put it, ‘familiar with the issues.’”

Team Bush scrapped a plan to visit Jordan, the program for which was made-for-media.

“The advance team had requested… that the Jordanian army marching band change its uniforms from white to red; tat the Jordanians, who did not have enough helicopters to transport the press, borrow some from the Israeli air force; that, in order to provide the color of live military action behind the vice president, the Jordanians stage maneuvers at a sensitive location overlooking Israel and the Golan heights; that Bush be photographer looking through binoculars studying ‘enemy territory’… [and] that camels be present at every stop on the itinerary.”

That the president should have a leading role in foreign policy is unobjectionable. He is the commander in chief, and the State Department and other foreign policy and diplomatic agencies report to him. It certainly is easier for one president to meet with a foreign official than 535 legislators.

Yet, the president’s role on foreign affairs has become hypertrophied through congressional neglect. The First Branch has delegated immense authorities and resources to the president to conduct foreign affairs. The political logic of “politics stops at the water’s edge” often deters legislators from speaking up or, heaven forbid, doing something when a president errs. In its worst form, criticizing the executive branch’s foreign misadventures is treated as unAmerican. 

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D, OH), one of the rare foreign policy statesmen on Capitol Hill.

Over the 20th century, America’s role in the world grew and grew. Congress’s willingness to invest in itself so that it could keep apace faltered. Statesmen once walked the Capitol’s halls. Today, the committees of jurisdiction on foreign policy mostly keep their heads down, and spending on legislative diplomacy is penurious. 

Media are no fools; long ago they largely abandoned covering Congress and foreign policy because the big players —who draw readers’ eyes— are so few. Reporters attention to the First Branch blossoms on those rare occasions when a conflict arises between legislators and the president—the recent House Democrat visit to the White House and subsequent press conference regarding the Russian bounties being an example.

COVID-19 has curbed President Trump from putting on a foreign policy show for the public. He has not travelled overseas in months, nor has he hosted many foreign officials. Joe Biden, who like George H.W. Bush has considerable foreign policy experience, is in a similar boat. Neither candidate has been able to go abroad and strike statesmanly poses. 

This is a historically freakish development, and one might be inclined to suggest it is a fine opportunity for some legislators to stand tall on foreign affairs. Certainly a few figures in each chamber have used the recent Russian bounty issue to speak up.

Whether any of them will keep up the energy and cultivate a public image as an expert on foreign policy is anybody’s guess. The habit of letting the president lead is deeply ingrained on the Hill. Legislators also face autumn elections, and may see little incentive to stick their necks out — Americans mostly tend to take little note of foreign affairs when they cast their ballots for legislators. They too have been trained to think the president must lead.

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