The War Over Who Controls U.S. Foreign Policy Has Begun

The unprecedented, massive new sanctions bill that Congress sent to President Donald Trump on Thursday is a statement of outrage by legislators over the president’s failure to responsibly carry out foreign policy on Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Fundamentally, it is also an overt effort to seize the national security reigns from the president.

Legislators are near unanimous in their support for a tougher U.S. policy stance on some of the gravest national security challenges. Many believe that Trump and former President Barack Obama have not acted strongly enough to check Iran’s ballistic missile program, support for terrorism, and efforts to destabilize the Middle East, as well as North Korea’s alarming race toward long-range nuclear weapons capabilities.

Lawmakers took matters into their own hands and wrote the new sanctions legislation to address these threats. But the real target and virulence of their bill is the set of financial measures aimed squarely at Russia. A raft of new sanctions are designed to hold Moscow to account for its meddling in U.S. democratic processes and its continued aggressive actions in Europe and the Middle East.

In practical terms, the new Russia measures lock into statute existing sanctions, preventing the president from throwing them out. And they go much further: New provisions will cut deeper into the profit-making and international engagement of Russia’s defense, intelligence, energy, banking, rail, mining, and metals sectors. They also target Russian cyberintrusions, and the country’s military support for the Syrian regime. Taken together, these new restrictions send an appropriately tough message to the Kremlin that the United States will not tolerate Russia’s election meddling and thuggery.

As tough as the legislation is, however, serving up venomous financial sanctions is nothing new. The truly remarkable and unprecedented element of this piece of law is an innocuously dubbed “congressional review” of sanctions. It handcuffs the president in his exercise of sanctions by creating elaborate mechanisms for scrutiny and blockade to prevent watering down of Russia policy. Congress wants the president on a very short leash.

This power grab is not dissimilar to Congress’s creation of the War Powers Resolution in 1973 to check the executive’s ability to engage in armed conflict without legislative consent. Now, as then, many legislators see the current state of affairs as dire, necessitating remarkable…

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