Obama Urges Congress to Work With Him in Setting Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama, Brady Press Room Briefing (National Journal)

President Obama reached out to Congress in a speech Thursday that outlined his approach to fighting terrorism, pledging to work with Capitol Hill in updating American policy and calling for effective and strong congressional oversight of administration actions.

The president's call for Congress to work with him in shaping policy covered a wide range of areas from targeting U.S. citizens abroad, reining in the use of drones, reworking the post-9/11 authorization of the use of force, securing U.S. embassies overseas, closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and keeping foreign aid flowing.

The nod to Congress's role in setting foreign policy was unusual historically. More often, presidents talking about war-making and foreign policy have stressed their own roles and resisted what they saw as interference from Capitol Hill. And certainly disputes between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are all but certain, particularly on Guantanamo Bay and foreign aid. But, for the day at least, the president was stressing his willingness to work with Congress.

He asked Congress to help him devise new guidelines for the use of drones, saying that "his new technology raises profound questions," including about "accountability and morality." He said more transparency is needed in the use of drones because too often the secrecy of such operations "can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites." He called on "strong oversight" and insisted he has kept Congress fully informed on his use of drones.

"Not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes," the president said. "Every strike. That includes the one instance when we targeted an American citizen, Anwar Awlaki." He said the constitutional issues raised by drone attacks on U.S. citizens are so profound that he wants to "extend the oversight of lethal actions outside of war zones that go beyond our reporting to Congress." But he said it has proven tough to come up with proposals that work. Establishing a special court to authorize lethal action "raises serious constitutional issues about presidential and judicial authority." He said the establishment of an independent oversight board in the executive branch introduces "a layer of bureaucracy into national security decision-making." He added, "Despite these challenges, I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these — and other — options for increased oversight."

On Guantanamo, he blasted Congress for keeping him from honoring his campaign promise to close the detention facility. "There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should have never been opened." He said its continued operation is ineffective, damaging to U.S. relations with allies, and too costly. It has become, he said, "a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law." He said it costs $150 million a year to house 166 prisoners, with another $200 million needed to keep it open.

He urged Congress to rise above politics. "I know the politics are hard," he said. "But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it."

He also acknowledged that the politics are tough for increases in foreign aid. "I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures that there is," he said. "That's true for Democrats and Republicans. I've seen the polling. Even though it amounts to less than 1 percent of the federal budget.... Less than 1 percent — still wildly unpopular." But he said it is not charity. "It is fundamental to our national security, and it's fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism."

The president also appealed to Congress to update the Authorization for Use of Military Force that was adopted three days after the 9/11 attacks and has been used by two presidents to defend extraordinary actions to kill or apprehend suspected terrorists. "I intend to engage Congress ... to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing," he said. He suggested the current resolution is badly out of date now that the war in Afghanistan is winding down and so many al-Qaida leaders have been killed. "Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight or continue to grant presidents unbounded powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states. He pledged that he "will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further."