08/20/2007 12:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Lasting Mark on Foreign Policy

Throughout most of U.S. history, Congress has usually played a passive role in shaping the nation's foreign policy. As a rule, the executive branch initiates, and Congress then makes minor adjustments through its powers of oversight, control over the budget, and authority to ratify treaties and confirm high-level diplomats.

When Congress has left a lasting mark on foreign policy, it has usually been in the role of spoiler. After World War I, the Senate rejected U.S. participation in the League of Nations and lawmakers embraced isolationism. During the Vietnam War, Congress eventually used its power of the purse to mandate the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Today, however, with U.S. troops mired in Iraq and the Bush administration still convinced that force is a more effective tool of statecraft than diplomacy, it is not enough for Congress to play only a restraining role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. Congressional lawmakers must step into the breach to restore balance and purpose to a foreign policy that has gone so woefully off course.

To be sure, Congress would be taking extraordinary steps if it took on a decidedly activist role in diplomacy. But the emergency in Iraq, the Bush administration's paralytic response, and the public clamor for a change of course require extraordinary intervention by the country's representative institutions. A strategic correction cannot be put off until the arrival of a new president in January 2009.

The Bush administration has not been completely blind to the failures of the blustery unilateralism of its first term. After reelection, Bush found the country not only stuck in Iraq but also isolated globally. During its second term, the administration has reached out to Europe and made discernible progress in repairing ties across the Atlantic. Washington negotiated the shut-down of North Korea's nuclear program. And albeit begrudgingly, U.S. officials have even initiated dialogue with the leader of the axis of evil: Iran.

Though welcome steps, these tactical adjustments have done nothing to redress the debacle in Iraq. Indeed, the Bush administration continues to labor under the illusion that brute force will carry the day. The White House insists that the "surge" will pacify Iraq and enable a unitary government to prevail over sectarian divisions. Dream on.

It has also proposed the sale of a massive arms package to the states of the Persian Gulf, a move allegedly intended to enlist their help in stabilizing Iraq and containing Iran. But without a diplomatic strategy to achieve these ends, the transfer of hardware does little to advance U.S. interests. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited the Gulf a few weeks ago, they made no progress in forging a regional compact that could help repair Iraq or bring Iran to heel.

With the executive branch abdicating its responsibility to conduct diplomacy, what can Congress do to fill the gap? For starters, it can get in the game.

Senators and House members often go abroad, meeting foreign leaders, attending parliamentary assemblies, and engaging in fact-finding missions. They may not have the constitutional authority to conduct diplomacy. But with the Bush administration having dropped the ball, they have the right -- indeed, the obligation -- to sustain channels of communication with allies and adversaries alike.

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did just that in Syria last spring, she was pilloried for overstepping her bounds. But Republican as well as Democratic members of Congress have often called on Damascus -- and should continue to do so. Such visits should aim to keep the lines of communication open; they cannot substitute for formal diplomacy. But this informal dialogue is vital at a time when the clock is running out on a White House that long ago squandered its credibility abroad.

The Democratic-controlled Congress should also alter its strategy for influencing the administration's handling of the war in Iraq. The Democrats do not have the numbers to force Bush's hand. With too few Republicans defecting from the White House, the Democrats' efforts to set a deadline for withdrawal cannot withstand a presidential veto.

Instead of introducing bills calling for U.S. forces to quit Iraq, Democrats should back a plan that couples partial withdrawal with the maintenance in Iraq of a sizable residual presence. American forces would disengage from Iraq's civil war and most units would return home. But at least three brigade combat teams -- about 30,000 troops -- would remain to fight Al-Qaida in Iraq, prevent regional spillover, and contain the spread of sectarian violence.

Should the Democrats switch to this approach, many Republicans would join them. Especially Republicans up for reelection in 2008 would welcome an alternative to backing Bush's futile surge. For the Democrats, this move would constitute not just good politics, but good policy. With Iraq coming apart at the seams, the United States cannot afford to walk away and risk a wider regional conflagration.

Finally, the Democrats can play a more influential role in guiding U.S. statecraft by playing political hardball. As Peter Trubowitz and I wrote in the International Herald Tribune on July 30, 2007, Democrats can offer logrolls that the White House will find hard to refuse.

For example, Democrats could announce a rolling moratorium on congressional investigation into the White House's conduct of the war. A full accounting will be needed, but now is not the time. In return, the White House could agree to close Guantánamo. The prison remains an international symbol of the excesses of the Bush presidency, and Democrats have been clamoring to shut it down. The willingness of Republicans to do so will not only help repair the partisan divide but also begin the process of restoring America's damaged credibility abroad.

Democrats should also take up President Bush's offer, made during this year's State of the Union, to set up a bipartisan congressional committee to work with the White House in overseeing the Iraq war. The committee should contain equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. In return, Cabinet-level officials should meet with the committee weekly. This dialogue would not only restore trust between the executive and the legislature, but also restore balance and credibility to U.S. diplomacy.

President Bush is the commander in chief until the next inauguration day. But in the interim, Congress must use all the powers at its disposal to help right the ship of state.

Charles A. Kupchan is Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Henry A. Kissinger Scholar at the Library of Congress.