04/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Institutionalized Irrationality: Republicans, the Senate, and US Foreign Policy

When teachers lecture on international relations, they often draw on real-world examples to illustrate complex theories. To explain how bureaucratic and domestic politics affect foreign policy, they usually bring up historical cases of states seemingly acting irrationally due to bureaucratic or domestic considerations. Why did Kaiser Wilhelm prolong World War I even though it was obvious Germany was losing? Why did the FBI and CIA not share information both knew to be essential in the time period before the 9/11 attacks? With the continued blocking of crucial Presidential foreign policy appointments by Republican Senators, instructors fifty years from now may draw on examples from early 21st-century US foreign policy to illustrate the pathologies that bedevil so many states' international relations.

Theories of bureaucratic and domestic politics are complex and diverse. Scholars of bureaucratic politics, following the pioneering work of Graham Allison, argue that one must look at the workings within states to understand international relations. They focus on either the routines of organizations or jockeying for turf and resources among organizations to explain state behavior. Theories of domestic politics and foreign policy, in turn, look at domestic cohesion, the nature of decision-making bodies, and the use of foreign policy-related issues to increase a political actor's domestic advantage.

For anyone who has been following the debates over GOP holds on President Obama's nominations, the parallel should be apparent. Senator Shelby, the Republican Senator from Alabama, placed a hold on all of Obama's nominees, some for key national security positions like the top intelligence slots at State and Homeland Security. Such a move effectively blocks voting on the nominees in question. Shelby later lifted holds on many of these nominees, with the exception of three Air Force officials. This is hardly an isolated affair; over 200 nominations are still awaiting votes due to the GOP's blocking tactics.

Debates over the appointment of top officials are not in themselves a problem; what is distressing is the reason for the holds placed by the GOP. Shelby's holds have less to do with the Obama administration's approach to homeland security and defense than with his desire to ensure an Air Force tanker is built in Alabama. Similarly, Errol Southers -- Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) -- withdrew from consideration after questions arose about the veracity of information he provided to Congress. The initial opposition to Southers' nomination, however --f rom GOP Senator Jim DeMint -- was based on concerns he would allow TSA workers to unionize.

I can already picture future lectures. They would begin with a series of questions. "Why, in the first term of the Obama Administration, did the United States take so long to establish leadership in the Air Force and Department of Homeland Security, both of which are crucial to US security?" Or the question could be re-framed to account for the Senate's actions: "Did Senator Shelby's opposition to Obama's appointees represent a debate over the nature of America's place in the world?" "Did opposition to the Southers' nomination indicate a divide over whether moral issues should affect government operations?"

These apparently irrational acts on the part of the United States would then inspire discussion on bureaucratic and domestic politics. The Republican Senators were motivated by domestic political fights and ensuring their re-election, rather than concerns related to national security. And bureaucratic processes -- in this case an idiosyncratic Senate policy -- enabled factors not related to defense to preclude a coherent US foreign policy.

So while I am glad the Republicans' obstructionism will provide material for Introduction to International Relations courses, I am less than comfortable living through an example of a pathological political system future scholars will analyze. This is not Wilhelmine Germany, this is the United States of America, a country that should be the model of democracy for the entire world. If its bureaucratic processes and domestic debates can undermine the rational pursuance of foreign policy objectives, what hope do other countries have?

Another question a future lecturer might ask, though, would be, "The solution seemed so simple. Why did the American people not express their frustration and force the Republicans to stop obstructing US foreign policy?" These are not the shadowy operations of a secret intelligence agency; it is the United States Senate. Shelby, DeMint, and other GOP Senators have for the most part avoided any public anger at their blatant manipulation of our national defense for political purposes. Why have the American people not directed their obvious frustration with government dysfunction towards the very legislators who are perpetuating this dysfunction?

Ultimately it will be up to the American people to decide whether the second decade of the 21st-century will be an example of the pathological effects of domestic politics, or a case of a country overcoming domestic divides and cynical politicians to advance an effective foreign policy.