America’s national security depends heavily on the strength and effectiveness of our foreign policy and defense. Both are suffering self-inflicted wounds caused by our dysfunctional politics.
As our political representatives can barely accomplish the most basic governing obligations, our adversaries delight, and our allies wonder if we can be counted on as reliable partners.
The most blatant mess has been our government’s budget debacle. We have the world’s largest economy and yet nearly defaulted on our debt only four months ago. Congressional Republicans used that risk as leverage to force negotiations on future spending, narrowly reaching agreement with the White House just in time to avert financial disaster.
The only upside of that fiasco should have been some breathing room after the two sides reached a difficult two-year deal on spending. But, alas, Congress brought us to the brink of a government shutdown in disagreement over that same budget only months later. The last-minute stopgap measure that Congress passed only hours before a shutdown began offers only a 45-day reprieve — but with consequences.
A handful of Republican hard-liners went to the mat to cut support for Ukraine. This raises real questions about Congress’ ability to secure additional support for Ukraine in the future, even though the majority of both parties in both houses support it, as does a majority of the American public. It also inevitably raises questions among our partners and allies around the world regarding America’s reliability.
Our reputation broadly suffers, but so do programs that serve our interests. Take PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has been wildly successful in getting the AIDS epidemic under control globally. With broad bipartisan support for two decades, it has saved some 25 million lives. Congress’ temporary budget fix didn’t reauthorize PEPFAR, so parts of the program expired over the weekend, putting at risk progress not only against AIDS but also much of our health care support around the world.
Meanwhile, a single Republican senator, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, has blocked more than 300 nonpolitical military promotions for months. Tuberville claims he will release the hold only if the Defense Department ends its policy of paying for service members to travel across state lines to seek reproductive health care. The Pentagon asserts that these services are essential to ensure the welfare and readiness of its forces. Tuberville’s move clearly undermines our national security by leaving dozens of essential positions unfilled or filled by temporary acting appointments.
While today’s Republican Party holds most responsibility for this dysfunction, don’t underestimate the damage caused by Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption scandal. He allegedly accepted bribes in exchange for using his position as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to benefit the Egyptian government.
For several years, many lawmakers have called for cutting U.S. security assistance to Egypt in response to the government’s abysmal human rights record. Only a small fraction of the $1.3 billion Egypt receives annually has been withheld as a result. Undoubtedly, Menendez’s assistance played a role in that success. Menendez reportedly used his leadership position to influence U.S. government decisions regarding the aid and even ghostwrote a letter for the Egyptian government requesting more. This interference raises real questions regarding whether this assistance has served U.S. national interests or merely those of the Egyptian government.
Corruption happens everywhere, but the real test is how governments deal with it. Given the seriousness of the charges and evidence against Menendez, expulsion from the Senate would seem the obvious outcome. But politics will make that a hard pill to swallow — not only for Democrats who don’t want to risk losing that Senate seat in 2024, but also Republicans who don’t want to set a precedent for ousting indicted members, as that might impair their own slim majority in the House.
But if Democratic lawmakers can’t give greater fealty to the law than to politics, they can hardly be taken seriously for condemning their colleagues across the aisle for doing the same.
It is likely no coincidence that America’s age of political dysfunction coincides with a period of deterioration in the international order.
The international community proved unable to deter Russia from its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Negotiations by the United States and other countries were not able to resolve the ongoing Azeri-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which Azerbaijan ended in September with a military offensive following a monthslong blockade. Serbia is currently building up troops and tanks on its border with Kosovo, raising alarm about a possible invasion there as well.
These are but a few examples of aggressors worldwide probing the international community’s resolve. Each of these conflicts could prove costly and consequential for our own national security interests across the globe.
For better or worse, U.S. leadership is inextricably linked with world order today. If the United States can’t lead by example as a defender of democracy and the rule of law at home, we’ll have a hard time defending them elsewhere.
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is the author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.” ©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.