U.S. Policy Unchanged

James Zogby’s Column

There are a number of things that must be said about President Bush’s decision to sign the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (also called H.R. 1646). 

In case you were on expedition to Antarctica and missed the news, H.R. 1646 includes a number of controversial and even outrageous provisions that were soundly criticized in much of the Arab press and resulted in bloody demonstrations in Palestine.

The most sensitive issue, that received the greatest attention, were provisions in the Act, which would have forced U.S. recognition of Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem.  Specifically, the Act would bring the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem under the control of the Embassy in Tel Aviv, and require all U.S. official maps and documents to refer to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

There were other equally controversial elements of the Act that received less attention.  They included:  allocating $100 million in extra U.S. military supplies to Israel; providing an additional $260 million in other forms of U.S. aid to Israel; withholding $10 million from U.S. aid to Lebanon; and outlining a series of sanctions that the President could apply to the PLO and the Palestinian Authority which, if implemented, would deny U.S. visas to Palestinian officials and close down the PA’s Washington office.

It is, of course, disturbing that such a bill could be passed at all.  For members of Congress to have done so at this time is more than disgraceful.  Given the profound alienation from and anger at the U.S. that currently exists in the Arab world, the growing frustration over the continuing violence and repression in Palestine, and concern that the U.S. is determined to launch a strike against Iraq, passage of H.R. 1646 ought to be viewed as criminal.

It is, however, important to note that most members of Congress had no idea what was in this bill.  Many voted on what they believed was merely an appropriations bill to fund the activities of the Department of State and to pay long owed back dues to the United Nations.  Some of the disturbing sections of the bill were the mischievous work of a few extremists.  They were added after Congressional voted and were not known until after the process was completed. 

While some of these provisions were a surprise to the Administration, others, like the Jerusalem sections, were known.  The Administration made its displeasure clear during negotiations over the bill, but not forcefully enough, it appears, to have dissuaded a willful few from doing their work.  As a result, a handful of pro-Israel members of Congress were allowed to impose their extremist positions on the rest of the legislation body.

And so late last week when H.R. 1646 finally passed Congress and was put on the President’s desk, the Administration was forced to respond.  They did not want to veto the entire budget since it included a number of important items, most notably the U.S. dues.  The decision, therefore, was made to have the President sign the bill, but to simultaneously issue a statement of clarification regarding the Administration’s understanding of the Act.

The “Statement by the President” was a detailed four page document that made clear the Administration’s rejection of many of the bills most controversial elements.  It began:

Regrettably, the Act contains a number of provisions that impermissibly interfere with the constitutional functions of the presidency in foreign affairs, including provisions that purport to establish foreign policy that are of significant concern….Such provisions, if construed as mandatory rather than advisory, would impermissibly interfere with the President’s constitutional authorities to conduct the Nation’s foreign affairs, participate in international negotiations, and supervise the unitary executive branch.

With regard to the sections dealing with Jerusalem, the President’s “statement” says,

Section 214, concerning Jerusalem, impermissibly interferes with the President’s constitutional authority to conduct the Nation’s foreign affairs and to supervise the unitary executive branch. Moreover, the purported direction in section 214 would, if construed as mandatory rather than advisory, impermissibly interfere with the President’s constitutional authority to formulate the position of the United States, speak for the Nation in international affairs, and determine the terms on which recognition is given to foreign states. U.S. policy regarding Jerusalem has not changed.

Much the same is said regarding the matter of PLO sanctions. The President’s “statement” concluded:

My approval of the Act does not constitute my adoption of the various statements of policy in the Act as U.S. foreign policy. Given the Constitution’s commitment to the presidency of the authority to conduct the Nation’s foreign affairs, the executive branch shall construe such policy statements as advisory, giving them the due weight that comity between the legislative and executive branches should require, to the extent consistent with U.S. foreign policy.

To the Administration the matter seemed resolved.  To a distrustful Arab world it all appeared to be a slight of hand trick.  The explanation was neither understood not accepted.  And, to be blunt, the United States did not take either Arab opinion or the importance of the matter seriously enough.  For example the President’s ‘statement’ while technically and legally satisfactory, was too long and too dense.  What was needed was a direct-“We will not recognize this provision, it is unconstitutional and wrong.  Our policy has not changed.”  But such a direct statement did not come until too long after the signing.  And by then it was too late.

What should be clear is that a real problem exists.  It is not the “status of Jerusalem”.  That, in fact, has not changed.

The problem is that the Administration does not see how out of touch it is with an increasingly angry Arab world that is distrustful of U.S. intentions.  Even while the State Department maintains that “policy has not changed,” that is of little comfort to an Arab audience deeply troubled by that very unchanging policy.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.