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Strong ties with US require good ties with president, Congress

The phrase “checks and balances” has become synonymous with the US political system. It refers to the way governmental power is divided among the three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — and how each branch has mechanisms and powers to oversee the other two branches and ensure they do not usurp powers that were not granted to them in the constitution.
As an added measure to prevent the concentration of power in the federal government, the constitution provides individual states with significant authority, especially regarding parochial issues that do not necessarily impact the entire nation.
While many praise the “founding fathers” for devising this system, some American scholars say these checks and balances are excessive, and have made the entire system slow, and cooperation on policy issues very difficult. One of the areas in which this tension between the branches has been most pronounced, and which has garnered significant attention from scholars and casual observers of US politics, is foreign policy.
Most American scholars appear to agree that the constitution intended for the executive branch — the president in particular — to play the more prominent role in formulating and conducting foreign policy. However, the US Congress — the legislative branch — has also been mandated by the constitution to play an important role.
While some see Congress as playing a secondary, consultative and oversight role, it does have the power to scuttle or even reverse the president’s policies. It also has the authority to initiate measures that impact how the US conducts its foreign policy in general or with a specific country.
Part of the problem is that while the powers of Congress are specifically expressed in the constitution, the powers of the president are more vague, leading some who advocate for the president to predominate in foreign policy to argue that the office has implied or “inherent” powers.
Those who think responsibility for formulating foreign policy should fall primarily on the president argue that unlike Congress — which is composed of 535 members, whose constituents have primarily parochial interests — the president is elected by the entire nation. Just as importantly, they say the president is able to act with considerable speed in case of a national emergency, or when a foreign crisis suddenly erupts.
Nevertheless, Congress is explicitly vested with the power to declare war, ratify international treaties and confirm many of the president’s nominees to lead the foreign policy bureaucracy, including the secretaries of state and defense, as well as ambassadors. Perhaps most important, Congress has the power to fund or defund any of the programs that the president initiates, including wars and military campaigns.


While some see Congress as playing a secondary, consultative and oversight role, it does have the power to scuttle or even reverse the president’s policies. It also has the authority to initiate measures that impact how the US conducts its foreign policy in general or with a specific country.

Fahad Nazer

It is often argued that tensions between the two branches became most intense after the Vietnam war and the presidency of Richard Nixon. Several aspects of the war not only did not receive the required congressional approval, but remained secret even from members of Congress.
In response, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973 to curb what some considered to be presidential usurpation when it comes to military engagement. The passage of such legislation, however, did not end the debate, and similar questions resurfaced during the Iran-Contra affair during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
More recently, a dispute emerged between the administration of former President Barak Obama and Congress over the passage of the Justice Against the Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
While members of Congress passed it overwhelmingly, the Obama administration was deeply concerned about the ramification of the dilution of a pillar of the international system: The principle of sovereign immunity, which prevents foreign officials from being prosecuted in the courts of other nations.
The administration argued that retaliatory measures by other nations could put US military and diplomatic personnel at risk because of America’s military and diplomatic footprint worldwide. However, Congress overrode Obama’s veto of the legislation, the only time it did so during his two terms in office.
Congress has several committees that focus on issues related to foreign relations, including the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives. The Senate Armed Services Committee also has an important role to play. Members of these committees often travel abroad to other countries and meet with senior officials to confer over issues of import to both nations.
Over the past few months, congressional representatives and senators have visited Saudi Arabia and met with its senior leadership. Recent delegations include Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Ben Cardin, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. Many long-serving members of Congress — senators serve six-year terms — have been strong supporters of close Saudi-US relations during the course of successive administrations.
To improve or maintain strong relations with the US, foreign nations must understand the different roles the president and Congress play, and must maintain good relations and open channels of communication with both branches.

• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is also a consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, but does not represent it or speak on its behalf. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.