The road to Biden's foreign policy runs through Senator Menendez: Politico

March 3, 2021 - 21:50

TEHRAN- Bob Menendez, the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will not let Biden repeat Obama's mistakes, according to Politico.

Since Joe Biden has taken office, his administration has bombed Syria, imposed sanctions on Saudi Arabia and Myanmar, and taken steps to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. But if Biden thinks he can make foreign policy decisions without consulting Robert Menendez, he’s got another thing coming.

Menendez has been in this role before, and he criticized the way the Obama administration conducted international affairs. In Menendez’s view, Obama treated foreign policy as if it were the sole discretion of the White House. Consequently, he often made things more difficult for Obama, especially in areas that needed congressional approval.

The 67-year-old third-term senator and former longtime House member told Politico that he was often frustrated by Obama, who would simply notify Congress of his decisions rather than consult with lawmakers in advance. Finally, Menendez came down on opposite sides of the White House on several issues, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the common name for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

“Beyond the realities of a 50-50 Senate, when we talk about foreign policy, whenever we can get a bipartisan basis for something — maybe not absolute, 100 members — we are stronger in the world,” Menendez (D-N.J.) said in an interview. “And I believe President Biden believes that.”

Politico acknowledged the White House is off to a rough start and said, “Menendez quickly registered his dissatisfaction last week when the Biden team did not give him a heads up about the president’s retaliatory strikes against Iranian installations in Syria; and he and other Democrats are already calling for more severe punishments against Saudi Arabia after a U.S. intelligence report officially pinned the blame for journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder on the kingdom’s crown prince and de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman.”

In a statement, Menendez stressed, “I am hopeful it is only a first step and that the administration plans to take concrete measures holding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for his role in this heinous crime.” 

Politico reminded it is critical for Biden’s foreign policy to keep Menendez in the loop and wrote, “It’s not surprising, then, that there is an ongoing White House campaign to curry favor with Menendez, who hasn’t been afraid to break with his party and has a history of making matters difficult for presidents who try to strong-arm Congress.”

“That makes all the difference in the world,” Menendez said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to agree 100 percent of the time. But it does mean that we will understand each other, where we’re coming from — and more likely than not, we will agree.”

The American publication admitted the hawkish Menendez and the Biden administration disagree on a handful of key areas including the Iran nuclear deal, U.S. relations with Cuba, the use of U.S. military force overseas, and what to do in regard to Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan president.

Generally, Menendez opposes negotiations or deals that seem to give any concessions to them. He likely won’t take it easy on the Biden team, many of whose members served under Obama, as they try to revive agreements like the Iran deal, or reestablish ties with Cuba — relationships that were damaged under former President Donald Trump. He’ll also insist on greater congressional say if and when the United States uses military force in abroad.

The Biden team is “right to want to have a good relationship with him. They’re going to agree with him on a lot of things,” said Ben Rhodes, who served as a key force behind diplomatic openings with Cuba and Iran during the Obama years.

 “But at a certain point, there’s a Senate view and an administration view, and unless you want [Menendez] to be in charge of your Cuba policy, your Venezuela policy or your Iran policy, you’re likely going to reach a point where you have to have a difficult conversation,” Rhodes remarked.

During the new administration, Menendez told Politico that Biden’s team is already discarding the Obama model — which he asserted did not always value Congress’ role in determining U.S. foreign policy — and instead of working closely with the Senate to coordinate and seek input.

Nevertheless, Politico emphasized senators have reasons to be optimistic because Biden is a former chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken is the former staff director for the panel.

 “You haven’t had an administration as populated with people who understand the role of the Senate, and also how helpful the Senate can be,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee who is close with Menendez. “I think they have a huge opportunity with Bob as the chair, given who the players are in the administration, to really have a very good working relationship.”

However, Kaine has been among the outspoken critics of Biden’s airstrikes in Syria last week, insisting that the president should have had authorization from Congress. Kaine is seeking for years to scrap the 2001 and 2002 war authorizations that presidents from both parties have used to justify U.S. military activity in West Asia.

Biden’s top deputies, apparently eager to not repeat the perceived mistakes of the Obama administration, are already working to keep Menendez happy, the American publication wrote. 

Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, described Menendez “a sounding board, a source of advice, and a leading voice on the most important national security issues of our time. My team and I are making it a personal priority to reach out and engage regularly with him and his team, and we will continue to do so.”

Also, Blinken promised similar engagement, saying Menendez “has proven himself to be both principled and effective.”

“Menendez’s allies say the Biden administration would cross him at its own peril — especially when Biden is looking for lawmakers’ support for a major foreign policy initiative. Menendez’s penchant for working closely with Republicans can be an asset to an administration that came into office emphasizing bipartisanship. And in a 50-50 Senate, every vote counts,” Politico wrote. 

“I would encourage the Biden administration to pick his brain because if Bob can get onto something, Republicans are going to take it seriously,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) underlined.

Pointing to Menendez’s promise to conduct vigorous oversight of the Biden administration’s foreign policy, the American publication wrote, “Something that was sorely lacking under former President Donald Trump, whose administration routinely flouted Congress, ignored the law, and was openly hostile to both Democrats and Republicans.”

 “When things aren’t going as well as they should, don’t expect Sen. Menendez to lay back. I expect he’ll be pretty aggressive,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the second-highest-ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

It pointed out U.S. presidents have long tried to blunt efforts by Congress to disable the executive branch and underscored, “Cardin experienced that hostility first-hand when he led the charge in 2012 for the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russian human rights violators. Obama ultimately signed the bill into law, but Cardin said his White House was “hostile toward Congress” because lawmakers were seeking to address an issue that was traditionally controlled by the executive branch.

 “There’s been, historically, under-performance by every administration on dealing with Congress. There is a view that they can do this without us,” Cardin noted.

Politico reminded Obama aides were worrying that Menendez would draw red lines that would box in their options and said, “Menendez, in particular, is loath to appear soft on governments like Cuba and Iran.”

It argued even if the Biden administration keeps Menendez looped into his satisfaction, he may ultimately disagree with some of their initiatives. 

 “I think it is important to include [us], as long as people are engaged in good faith, not just in being obstructionists at the end of the day,” Menendez asserted.

The Obama administration agreed that keeping Menendez engaged early on was significant. It believed everyone understands the consequences of a Senate split 50-50 between the two parties. Menendez won’t want to be seen as a politician who hurt Democratic Party.

Menendez thought that the Obama administration did not consult enough with him forehand of adopting key foreign policy approaches and said, “They didn’t consult enough on the Iran deal. They just didn’t,” said a person close to Menendez. “They knew it was his No. 1 issue.”


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