Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

N.P., P.M.?

I’ve been cheering the critics of Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Syria from the sidelines, but, after this WSJ editorial, I want to be more vocal. Especially offensive is Tom Lantos’s utterly irresponsible comment: "We have an alternative Democratic foreign policy. I view my job as beginning with restoring overseas credibility and respect for the United States."

The only conceivable good that can come out of this is overreaching in such a way as to make it more likely that no Democrat can win the presidency in 2008.

On the other hand, any interested in protecting the traditional (and constitutional) prerogratives of that office (HRC, Obama, and Edwards come to mind) ought to distance himself or herself from this initiative.

Amir Taheri patiently explains why those opposed to American principles and interests in the Middle East welcome Pelosi’s, er, diplomacy.

Discussions - 21 Comments

A WSJ editorial (which is only available to subscribers) suggests that Speaker Pelosi violated the Logan Act.
Would this not be an impeachable offense?
Sould someone call Mr. Fitzgerald?

I will call, if you will not. We cannot call A.G. Gonzales on this matter, can we?

Since I do not watch TV news, I do not know how this is playing out in the press, but the Taheri piece, yes, patiently explaining the problem with Pelosi�s actions, is frustrating to read because I would hope everyone KNEW what Pelosi is doing is horrible for the U.S. Is she running for the presidency? From the perspective of this non-TV viewer, it looks like she is using this trip to put her bid for a run for the presidency, as if she is proving she can do a better job than anyone else as proved by her foreign policy "coup" (if it is one) here. It is one of the few times I am sorry I do not have a TV to watch to see how the her performance is actually playing out to the public, although I would be screaming TRAITOR! at the screen and would probably miss some things.

My prediction: President "New Tone" will do absolutely zilch. At least so far, Bush has been a doormat.

The Logan Act, originally enacted in 1799, was AMENDED AND RE-ENACTED in 1994, so it is a very current piece of legislation. I believe it must have been repassed as a result of Speaker Jim Wright, who also had an "alternative Democrat policy" regarding the Sandanistas and even wrote to Commandante Daniel Ortega along these lines.

Here is the Logan Act of 1994. Has Speaker Pelosi not apparently committed a federal crime by negotiating an alternative plicy with Syria around US foreign policy?

"§ 953. Private correspondence with foreign governments.
Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply himself, or his agent, to any foreign government, or the agents thereof, for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.
18 U.S.C. § 953 (2004)."

Again with the Pelosi bashing! This whole "incident" ignores David Hobson, one of the three Republican senators who was with Pelosi on the trip who pointed out they were reinforcing the administration’s position there. And if talking to Syria is so awful, where is the outrage over the 3 Republican senators who visited the week before?

You guys are getting worked up a lather not unlike the "Nancy’s aircraft" controversey of January. Don’t let the RNC talking point people play you for chumps.

I don’t have a problem with visits, but with what is said during the visit and about the visit (see Lantos’s comment).

Joseph: With all due respect, I don’t understand your objection. Are you denying that we have lost credibility and respect in the world, or that lost credibilty and respect are a problem, or that anyone but the President should attempt to remedy that problem?

The Democrats may well have their chance to conduct diplomacy after the 2008 election, unless Nancy Pelosi is testing the waters for an earlier role for herself. Until then, we should speak with one voice, and one voice only, as we interact with foreign leaders. Doing anything else only exacerbates whatever problems we have.

Lantos’ comment about an "alternative Democratic foreign policy" in the context of a visit to Syria is outrageous. The fact that it comes from one of the saner Democratic voices on foreign policy is further evidence of how utterly power-mad, irresponsible and rotten this party has become.

Joseph: Congress has all sorts of powers when dealing with foreign leaders, including regulating foreign commerce, the power to declare war (etc.), power to raise funds for the army and navy (and, therefore, to cut them off), to shape "offenses against the law of nations," and allow states to impose import duties and enter into alliances with foreign governments; and a minority of members in the Senate can kill a treaty. The Senate can also shape a President’s diplomatic staff through the appointment process. And I’m sure that we can find members of all parties doing most of these things throughout history.

We don’t live in the kind of regime described by your comment. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a different question. I think conflict is probably good sometimes and bad at other times. Here, where the Bush administration has been pursuing an ineffective policy, it’s probably good that the lay of the land is more complicated.

Brett, none of those Congressional "influences" on foreign policy involve direct relationships with foreign powers. That’s the job of the POTUS and his Secretary of State...period. It has to be that way if we are to have any kind of unified foreign policy...without it, very soon we have 535 wannabe Presidents/Sec. of State.


I expect that there will be disputes about foreign policy conducted intra murales, but we can’t pursue those disputes beyond our borders. And that Congress has some authority in the areas you noted doesn’t give it authority in the executive areas you didn’t note. I’ll also remind you of something of which I’m sure you’re aware--the words of not yet Chief Justice John Marshall, cited in U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright: "The President is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations." There’s also this, in the same opinion, from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1816:

The President is the constitutional representative of the United States with regard to foreign nations. He manages our concerns with foreign nations and must necessarily be most competent to determine when, how, and upon what subjects negotiation may be urged with the greatest prospect of success. For his conduct he is responsible to the Constitution. The committee considers this responsibility the surest pledge for the faithful discharge of his duty. They think the interference of the Senate in the direction of foreign negotiations calculated to diminish that responsibility and thereby to impair the best security for the national safety. The nature of transactions with foreign nations, moreover, requires caution and unity of design, and their success frequently depends on secrecy and dispatch.

Joseph: unless the analysis is good, why should Congress care about what the Court said about this (or, respectfully, in your words from a few posts ago, "genuflect" before the Court)? If you look at the context of the Marshall quote - and I’m glad you quoted it because otherwise I wouldn’t have looked it up - he’s talking about an executive - judicial dispute, not an executive - congressional one.

Plus, unless I’m mistaken, 1816 was a period of unified government, sort of like the last few years, in which Congress hasn’t been too eager to insist on its own prerogratives.

We’ve been around the horn on "speaking with one voice" before. I think that it’s unrealistic and not the only view anchored constitutional design. Moreover, a President who was actually skilled in diplomacy could use the discord to his advantage. But Bush and the Republicans would rather use it to complain about a resurgent Congress.


There is nothing in the liberal tradition or in the founding tradition that applauds speaking with two different voices abroad. I can’t think of any respectable source that approves it, on the grounds either of principle or prudence.

The fact remains, the Congress has no legal authority to directly engage in foreign relations. The power is just not granted to them -- it is explicitly granted to the executive. Case closed.


The President retains his authority as ultimate head of the diplomatic corps and the only official negotiating partner with foreign governments. He still has authority over executive agreements, and he still negotiates treaties. Don’t worry: he’s still relevant!

The fear of speech that one can read here in this context (and others) is, I submit, strange. We have a complex political regime in which the President has no authority to order the Speaker of the House - or a bipartisan group of lawmakers on a trip to Damascus - to be silent, not to speak of a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers. As I said, I can’t see the harm in it, because it mirrors the complexity of our form of government.


Yes, our regime is complex, and yes, people are entitled to their own views about foreign policy, but until they have the White House, those views should only be promoted in domestic debates, not explicitly offered to adversaries.

Were it not for the most part overcome in the conduct of foreign affairs, the complexity would make it impossible to conduct foreign policy, as adversaries could effectively play one branch off against the other. Avoiding this requires a certain self-restraint on the part of those not in the executive branch, a self-restraint Pelosi and her colleagues seem to lack.

I would say the same thing about Republicans when a Democrat was President. Criticism is fair game, but not free-lancing in foreign policy. The minute a foreign power seeks to use one party or one branch against the other, we should recognize that what’s going on can’t be good for the country.

Joseph: what view did this delegation (or any of the other bipartisan delegation) offer to Syria? That it would go to Damascus? That it’s not happy with the Bush administration? So what? Seen it before, no surprise.

If the Bush administration wants the obedience from the rest of the political landscape that you propose, it shouldn’t have been so incompetent over the past few years. A little more "freelancing" on the part of the Republican Congress might have kept the administration on its toes.

To Brett:

You say: "We have a complex political regime in which the President has no authority to order the Speaker of the House - or a bipartisan group of lawmakers on a trip to Damascus - to be silent, not to speak of a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers." But Congress itself disagrees with you -- that is the very meaning of the Logan Act which, as I emphasized above, was re-enacted only 13 years ago. When anyone breaks the law, including the Speaker, he or she is precisely ordered by the law itself, and the President as the Chief Executive of law under our Constitution, to stop breaking the law.

You and some others write as if all that is happening is a debate over foreign policy. Sure there can be loud debates about foreign or domestic policy, but debate is not the same thing as violating the law we have now. Abraham Lincoln repeatedly pointed out that no matter how objectionable a law may be, even immoral, until it is changed all AMericans are duty bound to follow that law.

No one has said that Congressmen may not travel to enemy countries. The issue is carrying on negotiations that undermine the ONLY one policy the country has. The Republicans have not violated that command; the Speaker has.


Your argument seems to amount to this: our "complex" political system prevents us from having a coherent foreign policy. I don’t think so, at least as long as we speak with one voice to our adversaries. If the Democrats willfully undermine the President overseas, he actually can’t be held responsible for its failure, surely not their intent, or the intent of the Founders, who insisted upon the importance of responsibility in constructing a unitary executive. You know this, I’m sure.


I agree, in theory, that if the President alone is conducting foreign policy, it makes political accountability easier. But it’s the kind of argument that always works best at the extremes, where people would actually vote on the issue. I’m not sure that’s the case in any given policy area, and it’s surely not the case with Syria. Nobody is going to hold the President to account for his failures, politically. Perhaps his party will be held to account for his errors, but that’s not the same thing.

I don’t think that where the President has made errors, everyone else in the system - people of good will - has to sit around and wait for permission from the Founders, or Locke, or whomever, before countering him. Life is too short.

We do not live in the little Republic of 1798, facing a fear of the internal divisions that doomed republics in the past, worried about being divided and crushed by the large powers, looking with fear, dread, and sometimes attraction at the fruits of the French Revolution. We are ourselves the large power. How to deal with Syria is a question upon which the fate of the republic does not hinge. If the President wants obedience, again, he needs to persuade his political opponents or show more competence in foreign affairs.

In general, then, I don’t care too much about the kind of coherence you’re concerned about; the Republic will not fall if there are multiple actors in the game, and the President is still relevant (again, don’t worry!). And in this particular instance, I’m still with Lantos, on substantive grounds.

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