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On foreign policy, Biden and Dems quarrel (the way a party should)

The fact that Democrats are quarreling over foreign policy is a good thing. It's what healthy political parties that care about governing do.
The Capitol Dome is seen behind the Peace Monument statue on Dec. 31, 2018.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Six weeks into his term, President Joe Biden's approach to foreign policy is starting to come into focus. As the New York Times reported today, the new American president has already taken a series of consequential steps, ranging from ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen, recommitting to the New Start nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and targeting Iranian-backed fighters in Syria.

Some of the administration's moves have generated praise from congressional Democrats, but not all of them. Politico reported this morning:

President Joe Biden's early foreign policy moves are putting him at odds with his fellow Democrats, some of whom are mounting pressure campaigns to force his hand. Just last week, Biden drew friendly fire after ordering airstrikes on Iran-backed militia groups in Syria without first seeking congressional approval, and for refusing to impose penalties on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — whom Biden's administration publicly blamed for the brutal 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The article added that Congress and the White House may be under Democratic control, but Biden is being reminded that his ostensible partisan allies "won't hesitate to try to rein in or pressure a Democratic president's actions on the world stage."

Politico had a separate report this morning on Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the new chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which also noted, "[I]f Biden thinks he can make foreign policy decisions without consulting New Jersey's Robert Menendez, he's got another thing coming."

To be sure, there are all kinds of relevant details, and in some cases, I'll be inclined to agree with one side or the other. (If Menendez stands in the way of progress toward a renewed Iran nuclear deal, for example, it's going to drive me batty.)

But stepping back, it's the larger context that's worth pausing to appreciate. First, note that Congress' role in foreign policy has grown increasingly diminished over the years, and it's good to see lawmakers reassert themselves, defend their institution, and restore some semblance of checks and balances.

And second, the fact that Democrats are quarreling over foreign policy is a good thing. This is what healthy political parties that care about the substance of governing do. They disagree over policy details. They debate. They deliberate in the hopes of reaching a sensible outcome.

As the Washington Post's Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, argued in a recent column that there's "only one political party right now" -- and it's not his. Noting the substantive disagreements between Democrats, Gerson added, "This type of disagreement — progressive vs. moderate, ambition vs. incrementalism — is sometimes described as dysfunction. In fact, it is the beating pulse of a healthy party.... I watch these Democratic arguments with envy."

There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, that Republican officials saw debates like these as an extension of their birthright: foreign policy was, according to the conventional wisdom, the sole purview of the GOP.

But in 2021, as congressional Democrats and the Biden White House wrangle over the substantive details of international affairs, Republicans are largely invisible and irrelevant. The GOP's leading voices on foreign policy -- Dick Lugar and John Warner, for example -- have exited the stage, and those who once dreamed of taking their place -- I'm looking in your direction, Lindsey Graham -- are content to focus more on Donald Trump's whims and less on the United States' global role.

After four years in which congressional Republicans were too often content to let Donald Trump do as he pleased in foreign policy, this is a welcome change of pace.