Leon Fuerth Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Thinking about the Future: Conversation with Leon Fuerth,
Research Professor of International Affairs, Elliott School, George Washington University; February 7, 2005 by Harry Kreisler

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Congress and the Executive

You've had a unique perspective of working both in the Congress and the Executive. How would you compare the way they see foreign policy? Is it the same, or do they see it very differently? And what are the pressures or constraints that make the difference?

Where the Congress is concerned, there's no "they." I have to think a minute about whether there's a common denominator among all those hundreds of people about how they look at foreign policy. I would think that one common denominator, although it's sort of differentiated by party, is the idea that Congress under the Constitution does have responsibilities where foreign policy is concerned, while the Executive Branch looking at the Constitution thinks that the president is given almost exclusive authority. I think that idea that the authority is shared is pretty close to the only common denominator about foreign policy that you will find in the Congress that stretches between the two parties. Not even the far right would argue that the president has exclusive power.

Are the people in the Congress more responders to events than the Executive, or are they both equally at fault here?

It really depends on whom. First of all, if you're a committee chair, or a subcommittee chair, or a minority leader, and so on, you can't simply be a responder. You're expected to lead by your colleagues. Even if you are a member with no particular position in foreign affairs, there's a peculiarity about our system. The voting public back in your district, or in your state if you're a senator, is going to demand that you have a position on all sorts of issues.

It's much different than if you were a member of parliament. If you're a member of parliament, you've got a staff of maybe two people in your own office, and what you know about your position on issues is what you are told by the party central apparatus. If you don't like that, and if you're inclined to vote against your prime minister on a key issue, what you're really doing is bringing down the government.

In our system, there is party loyalty to the president, but every member is an entrepreneur, so to speak, and his customers, meaning the voters, want to know what his (or her) position is on the issues, and he is forced to define one because the votes keep coming up. The votes are often on issues that are presented in ways to force definition. So even those who are not terribly interested one way or the other have to think their way through to some kind of position. But many of them are deeply interested, and they can become important voices in their own rights.

Do you think that this global sense that you talked about Gore having very early is something that most of the Congress has come to realize over time, the period that you've been involved in these affairs?

No, I think it was rare then, and while it is less rare now, it is still not pervasive.

So as a result, the key actors in terms of shaping public opinion are in the Executive?

Yes, of necessity. The Executive has its hands on all sorts of levers that enable it to take the initiative. It's difficult for individual members of Congress to punch through that and to be able to reach public opinion in the same way that the president can or cabinet members can.

Your current work is on forward engagement, in an intellectual sense. Talk a little about whether you think our institutions are working today. If one looks at the Iraq War, for example, and the buildup to the war, one wonders whether Congress did its job in advising and voting on the congressional resolution. And then following up, the war starts, the cost of the war and so on; was there an institutional failure on the part of the Congress with regard to the responsibilities it had to monitor what the president wanted to do?

There's a famous quote from the writer [Ring Lardner]: "Shut up, he explained."

That was, in my opinion, the attitude of the Bush administration towards anybody, anywhere, who felt differently about what we should do. I don't think the advice of the Congress was particularly wanted. I also feel that the Congress, including the Democratic portion of it, was maneuvered by the administration into a position such that many people voted, not disingenuously, but voted under tremendous political pressure that was deliberately brought to bear on them in order to influence the way they came out. I specifically believe that the congressional oversight system is in disrepair, and you don't have to take my word for it, you can read the findings of the September 11th Commission, which says that the failure of the intelligence committees to exercise adequate oversight meant that an important defense of the system against error was stripped away. I see indications in the press that Congress may have learned from this. I'm trying to be nonpartisan, but part of the problem here is that the House is under Republican control, and the Republicans have been the position to quash lines of inquiry that might otherwise make things uncomfortable for the administration. That gets in the way of a vigorous oversight process.

So partly the failure of the system is the result of the partisanship that is increasingly evident?

Right, very much so. I believe that partisanship has reached levels that are absolutely toxic. It has gotten to the point where there's a level of rancor that people do not remember. If you think historically, the country has had plenty of rancor in the Congress, some of it even leading to physical violence on occasion, as in one famous case before the Civil War. But old-timers around the Congress will tell you that they've never seen it get this way. I think Newt Gingrich may have a good deal to do with that, because the "Republican Revolution" fed a sense of division for its own sake, for its own political usefulness.

So that any kind of bipartisan consensus is near impossible, if not impossible?

Well, difficult. In a certain way, people who have extreme positions have less tolerance for centrism than they have for the opposition. One of the things you have to keep in mind about centrism is that it's not a place to go to get away from controversy, although many people think of it as such. If you're going to try to occupy the center, you need to understand that you will be attacked from both flanks, because neither the left nor the right will particularly admire your position, and they will always be out either trying to convert you or gunning for you, one way or the other. So unless you are trying to flee from commitment to the center, being in the center means you have to have principles that you have thought through and are prepared to defend against all comers, who will go to your district and try to attack you as well. So it requires commitment.

I would imagine it also requires that you listen and not tell people to shut up, because if you're building a consensus position, you have to think through the different positions to find where you want to be.

Centrism requires tolerance for doubt. It requires an awareness that error is possible on all sides, including your own, and the truth may be present on all sides, including the other person's. It requires that you have the ability to make decisions under circumstances of uncertainty, as opposed to the easier course, which is to make decisions when you're absolutely convinced that nothing else could be true. Because when you do that, what do you have to worry about?

How would you rate the Executive? It seems to have all of the power, or most of the power has flowed to it, but it often seems to be operating according to institutional formats that relate to the period of the Cold War, when most of those institutions were designed.

That's true of both the Executive branch and the Congress. The national security apparatus that we have in the Executive branch essentially reflects developments that started in 1945, '46, '47, as we adjusted the structure to reflect lessons learned in World War II and to build it up so that it can handle confrontation with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union has been gone for ten years. The world is totally different in its make-up and complex of issues, but we still have the same system. By intuition alone, you might think that somehow there needs to be a revamping of the basic methods by which we approach these new and complex and diffuse issues. Don't ask me what they might be; in another month or so, I may write something that will do it. But I have a strong feeling -- and you and I haven't talked about my eight years in the White House to back this up -- that something different is needed in the way in which the Executive branch organizes to contend with these issues. Where the Congress is concerned, you have the committee system, which dates back to practically the beginning of the operations of the Congress.

The eighteenth century ...

Yes, it is. And it's done well. I remember I was waiting outside somebody's office for a while, and there were some dusty books in the cabinet. These were the Congressional Record. I opened one up because I was bored, and [read about] a debate that took place in 1890, and they were talking about the closing of the frontier. Well, I was waiting to have a discussion about legislation pertaining to outer space. The same institution had spanned a discussion of the closing of the American frontier and the exploration of outer space, which is not bad as a test for elasticity in the face of drastic change.

But things are getting more and more complex, and the committee system as we know it is making it harder for the Executive branch to do its job and harder for the Congress to its job.

There's a map that someone made that shows the number of committees to which the Department of Homeland Security must respond. You would have to blow that map up considerably, because on a page the size of yours, the lines eventually just form a blur because there are so many of them. The question there is whether the Congress, as it seems now likely to do, will form broad-based committees to deal with multifold types of issues. You have to understand that in order to do that, people who are involved in the present system would see some of their authority pooled elsewhere, and that's difficult to get done.

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