December 10, 2023

Relocations: Does the conduct of U.S. foreign policy befit a democracy?

Herbert Rothschild
April 21, 2022

Does even Congress always know what the White House is doing?

The United States has one president, but it has two presidencies; one presidency is for domestic affairs, and the other is concerned with defense and foreign policy.

— Aaron Wildavsky, Professor of Political Science, UC-Berkeley, 1966

By Herbert Rothschild

In a democracy, citizens not only have the power to elect their leaders but also to exercise significant control over their actions. It’s true that popular dissatisfaction can be expressed by voting out incumbents, but that merely negative check on our leaders takes time; meanwhile, their actions have gone into effect and often cannot be completely undone. Democracy requires the ability to influence the formation and administration of public policy.

I regard as democratic the formation and administration of U.S. domestic policy. True, concentrations of wealth often distort the processes. Nonetheless, those processes are fairly transparent and open to multiple inputs. Domestic policy lobbies abound, and individual citizens have a voice. Further, legal authority is distributed. At the federal level, Congress has at least as much power as the White House, and major policies are also made by state and local governments. The judiciary exercises a final check on unconstitutional laws and illegal governmental actions.

The formation and administration of foreign policy are quite different both in openness to participation and to view. Our policies regarding Israel are an exception. They are closely watched, and the American Israel Political Affairs Committee is an enormously influential lobby, which can muster significant grassroots participation and prompt Congressional action. But that exception proves the rule. For instance, how many Americans can speak of U.S. policies regarding Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, and who successfully lobbied for them? (For the curious, start with Augustus C. “Gus” Long and James Robert “Jim Bob” Moffett.)

Foreign and military policy are made and executed by each sitting administration. Since the end of World War II, Congress has largely forfeited its legal powers, principally to declare war and to fund overseas operations. Here, again, there have been a few notable exceptions. One was the Boland Amendment forbidding the White House to spend tax dollars to destabilize the Nicaraguan government, but Reagan’s people found ways to abet the Contras’ campaign of terror anyway. More recently (2019), Congress passed three resolutions prohibiting the sale of certain arms to Saudi Arabia because they were being used to inflict grievous harm on civilians in Yemen, but President Trump vetoed them. As a rule, though, Congress doesn’t try to curb executive power.

It’s not clear that Congress even knows what the executive is doing. The Senate and House Intelligence Committees get briefed on covert operations when an administration thinks it’s expedient to do so, but that’s as far in Congress as such information goes. In August 2017, news broke that four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed in combat in Niger. The reaction on Capitol Hill suggested that it was a “WTF” moment for our senators and representatives.

The federal judiciary is even more remiss. Typically, as soon as they hear the magic words “national security,” judges give the executive a pass. Perhaps the most egregious example was the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling in 1944 upholding the internment of Japanese Americans. That abiding historical embarrassment didn’t induce 21st century justices to end the indefinite detention without charges of more than a thousand abducted persons on U.S. soil, many of whom were tortured. The international treaties we sign and ratify are officially the law of the land and could provide a basis for judicial control over administration lawlessness, but gross violations, such as our 2003 invasion of Iraq, prompt no judicial interference.

So how does the White House make its policy decisions? Responsibility was formally assigned by the National Security Act of 1947, which created many of the institutions Presidents have since relied on, such as the National Security Council (NSC), the National Security Advisor and the Central Intelligence Agency. In large part, however, the main players are the President and those on whom he chooses to rely.

For example, by statute the Secretary of State is a permanent member of the NSC. George H.W. Bush leaned heavily on his, James Baker. But despite Colin Powell’s personal stature, as Secretary of State he was sidelined by the Neocons in George W.’s circle. The Vice President is also by statute on the NSC. It’s unlikely that Bush pere ever consulted Dan Quayle, but Dick Cheney, Bush fils’ VP, ran the show for eight years. That Henry Kissinger was National Security Advisor during Nixon’s first term but Secretary of State during his second term made no practical difference. Together with Nixon he dominated foreign policy.

During Eisenhower’s Presidency, the major players were John Foster Dulles, his Secretary of State, and John’s brother Allen, head of the CIA. Like Kissinger, they were closely tied to the Rockefeller family, and all three of them served Rockefeller interests by subverting democracy in nations like Iran, Congo and Chile. But appalling and as lastingly harmful as our covert operations have been, they shouldn’t divert our attention from the formation of overarching policies, such as whether our activities in the developing world will invariably serve corporate and banking interests and whether U.S.-China relations will be cast as irrevocably hostile.

In the future I hope to share the results of my on-going investigation into who decides how the U.S. positions itself internationally. I’ll end now by asking whether, in a globalized world, we who have so little knowledge, much less control, over foreign policy can rightly claim to live in a democracy.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Email him at

Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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