Before you get to be president you think you can do anything.
You think you’re the most powerful leader since God.
But when you get in that tall chair, as you’re gonna find out,
Mr. President, you can’t count on people.
You’ll find your hands tied and people cussin’ you.
The office is kinda like the little country boy found the hoochie-koochie
show at the carnival, once he’d paid his dime and got inside the tent:
“It ain’t exactly as it was advertised.”
—Lyndon B. Johnson, quoted in Cronin (1979, 381)
In many ways, Congress is the poor relation in the American foreign
policy–making arena. Scholars describe “presidential preeminence” and
“congressional grandstanding,” presidents claim foreign policy preroga‑
tives and decry the perils of “535 secretaries of state,” the courts declare
the “plenary power of the president over foreign affairs,” and some mem‑
bers of Congress themselves note their support of congressional deference.
The institution and its members are the Rodney Dangerfield of the foreign
policy game: they get no respect.
While most observers prefer to characterize foreign policy as the prod‑
uct of an administration and its appointees in the executive branch, there
is another view, less often heard but just as inaccurate. As a congressional
staff aide colorfully described the situation to us in 2001, “If Congress
speaks with one voice the game is over. Congress has the money. And the
president can’t flush the toilet at the end of the day without approval from
Congress. . . . And if there’s the will in Congress, the president will . . .
see the writing on the wall and he’ll take action” (Munson 2001). Critics
sharing this view have railed against the “imperial Congress” and the ille‑
gitimate and harmful intrusion into presidential territory that they believe
it represents.
In our view, neither of the perspectives outlined above suffices, and both
significantly distort the reality of American foreign policy making. Clearly,
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