TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Contends with Congressional Backseat Drivers on Ukraine

Congress again threatens to push Obama foreign policy with legislation

A Malaysia Airlines jet is shot down over the Ukraine and Congress is, of course, full of back-seat foreign policy advice for President Obama. The problem is when they start passing some of this advice to be signed into law.

Some say Obama has already been too aggressive. “[T]he crisis in Ukraine started late last year, when the EU and U.S. overthrew the elected Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych,” said former Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican. “Without U.S.-sponsored ‘regime change,’ it is unlikely that hundreds would have been killed in the unrest that followed. Nor would the Malaysian Airlines crash have happened.”

On the other side of the hawk spectrum, Republican Senators such as Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk felt compelled by the tragedy to call on Obama to pass energy, banking and defense sectoral sanctions against Russia, which has been supporting Ukrainian separatists but denies having anything to do with the downing of the plane. Thus far the Obama Administration’s punishment for Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and rabble rousing in eastern Ukraine has been targeted individual sanctions and visa restrictions.

“I don’t know how anybody can say our response has been anything but timid and cautious,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. “Hopefully on the positive side, this will galvanize the international community to take the kind of steps that should have been taken months ago to push back on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and cause him to pay the kind of price that he should pay for this outrageous act.”

Kirk also called on Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a wrongful death suit. “I want to hear that the Department of Justice will bring one hell of a wrongful death suit against Russian assets located in the United States to make sure that there is significant cost paid by Russia for this action of shooting down with an international airliner with a weapons system that is directly related to Russian armed forces,” he told CNN.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, went so far as to call on Obama to arm the Ukrainian government. “Now is the time to provide Ukraine with the weapons and other military assistance they have requested and require to defeat the separatist groups and secure their country—assistance that, had we provided it earlier, might have enabled Ukrainian forces to succeed in this effort by now and thereby prevented last week’s tragedy,” McCain said on Monday.

So far, all Obama has threatened is to levy unspecified costs against Russia, along with urging the Europeans to step up on sanctions.

Congress, and particularly the party in opposition, has often expressed strong views on the President’s foreign policy. Despite the fact that, constitutionally, foreign policy is the purview of the Oval Office, Congress drove the War of 1812 and was a key factor in the Mexican-American War. They also dragged Franklin Roosevelt’s heels in getting into World War II and had an enormous impact on Vietnam policy, not to mention Democratic efforts to defund President George W. Bush’s actions in Iraq.

But Obama not only has to contend with opposition complaints about his foreign policy, but with some friendly fire as well. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, has been the driving force to get Obama to beef up sanctions against Iran, support Israel more strongly and hold a tougher line on Cuba. Menendez has helped push through sanctions that the Administration has explicitly said it didn’t want, something he could do again against Russia if the Administration doesn’t act.

Obama has not had an easy time with Congress on much of anything, but particularly on foreign policy. The other end of Pennsylvania Avenue is quick to condemn, and yet when they are asked to act, for example with Syria or Libya, they suddenly remember the separation of powers. Congress in both instances failed to pass any kind of resolution approving action in either country. That’s because polls show that from Libya to Syria to the Ukraine, the American people have zero desire to engage in more wars. Which means that despite the sturm und drang coming out of the hawkish wing of the GOP, Obama is probably more likely to listen to Paul’s libertarian Dovish wing.

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