Once upon a time, members of Congress viewed it as their job to steer the White House toward a better foreign policy; party solidarity wasn’t reason enough to subordinate their principles. Congress also believed the power of the purse was a tool not simply to constrain, but also to lead the executive branch toward a more robust American global leadership. Those days are mostly done. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman Bob Menendez is an exception, one of a tiny cohort that remembers that historically it has been Congress that has led on human freedom, support for democracy, and sanctions against weapons proliferators and dictators.
Like the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairs of yesteryear—Henry Cabot Lodge, William Borah, Arthur Vandenberg, J. William Fulbright, Frank Church, and Jesse Helms, among others—Menendez has sought to return the committee to the center of U.S. foreign policy, along the way sticking it to the Biden (and Trump and Obama) White Houses with New Jersey verve that has earned the senator an impressive roster of detractors, both within his own party and without.
On domestic policy issues, Menendez is a standard issue liberal ($10,000 student loan relief on the taxpayer? Why not more? The “Inflation Reduction” Act? More, sir, please! And don’t forget the Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation Act, introduced with Elizabeth Warren, that targeted crisis pregnancy centers. On foreign policy, however, he has been called the “last hawk on the Left.” Or as one former GOP national security staffer put it to me, “I’d be proud if he was a Republican.”
Menendez is Cuban-American, and it shows. He has opposed all efforts, Obama’s and more recently Biden’s, to loosen restrictions on Communist Cuba. In a recent press release on Biden’s changes to U.S. Cuba travel policy, he left no doubt as to his position:
All the empty hope for change can’t hide the brutality of the declaration Che Guevara made before the United Nations in 1964: ‘we have executed people, we execute people now and we will continue executing people for as long as we deem necessary.’ No words better sum up the true nature of this regime.
Cuba punches far above its weight in Washington’s foreign policy battles, but it is on China and Iran where Menendez has truly made his mark in recent years. He was not the only Democrat to oppose Barack Obama’s cozy dealings with the Islamic Republic in 2015—current Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was the first—but he arguably was the most vocal.
Menendez made his opposition to a weak deal with the Islamic Republic clear from the earliest days. He had been among the leading Iran hawks for many years, and as it became clear that congressionally mandated sanctions could well be lifted in exchange for a deal, the senator joined with GOP opponents to demand Obama submit the agreement to Congress.
The president and his echo chamber fought back, or appeared to. On April 1, 2015, Menendez was hit by the Obama Justice Department with 14-count, 68-page indictment that included seven bribery charges and allegations of sex with underage prostitutes. The indictment, “the first federal bribery charges against a sitting senator in a generation,” forced Menendez to step down from his leadership position at the SFRC, effectively sidelining him from a senior role in addressing the Iran nuclear deal. Coincidence? At the time, Menendez’ staff told me they thought not. (A subsequent trial ended with a hung jury, a dismissal of several of the counts, and finally, a Justice Department decision to drop all the charges.)
Obama acolytes in the left and mainstream media savaged Menendez. A lengthy article in the fringe-y pro-Iran deal Intercept magazine went on to detail the relationship between the shadowy Mujahedin e-Khalq—a former U.S. desig
nated terrorist organization— and Menendez, drawing a line between support for the group, campaign donations, and opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. (Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald explained that “Neocons [read, Jews] hate the Iran deal precisely because it’s likely to normalize the world’s relations with that country, making the war they’ve long craved much less likely.)
In the face of a White House onslaught, Menendez came out swinging. “Unlike President Obama’s characterization of those who have raised serious questions about the agreement, or who have opposed it,” Menendez sneered in a 6,000 word speech at Seton Hall University in August, 2015, “I did not vote for the war in Iraq, I opposed it, unlike the Vice President and the Secretary of State, who both supported it.” It went downhill from there.
“While I have many specific concerns about this agreement,” Menendez continued, foreshadowing ongoing criticisms of the nuclear deal, “my overarching concern is that it requires no dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and only mothballs that infrastructure for 10 years. Not even one centrifuge will be destroyed under this agreement.” He criticized the deal’s sunset provisions: “One of the single most concerning elements of the deal is its 10-15 year sunset of restrictions on Iran’s program, with off ramps starting after year eight. We were promised an agreement of significant duration and we got less than half of what we are looking for.” Well, yes.
Although a vocal opponent of the nuclear deal inked in 2015, Menendez nonetheless opposed the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. He reiterated his opposition to the original deal, but cited concerns about leaving European allies to hang out to dry and the lack of a follow-on plan to contain Iranian breakout. While he remains critical of Trump’s handling of Iran, he does not advocate returning to the deal Trump abandoned.
The Biden administration has been working assiduously on a new deal since he was inaugurated. No member of Congress has been more critical of that effort than Menendez. He has also aggressively made the case that any new agreement with Iran be submitted for congressional review, which he says the White House has agreed to.
And now Menendez is turning his attention to another sticking point with the Biden administration. He and GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham recently introduced the Taiwan Policy Act.
In a New York Times editorial, he wrote “We saw the warning signs for Ukraine in 2014 and failed to take action that might have deterred further Russian aggression. We cannot afford to repeat that mistake with Taiwan.” He’s essentially telling the White House (as well as Trump’s and Obama’s administrations), “you screwed this up and we’re not going to let you do it again.”
The TPA was marked up and moved to the Senate floor on Wednesday. Committee members watered down several “provocative” (per Sen. Mitt Romney) provisions, including one that would have elevated the post of U.S. representative to Taipei to a quasi-ambassadorial Senate confirmed position and another that would have renamed the Taiwanese mission in Washington. Others that designate Taiwan a major non-NATO ally (implying a level and quality of weapons supplies and military relations by the U.S.), authorize the appropriation of almost $4.5 billion in security assistance, elevate efforts to include Taipei in international organizations (currently blocked by Beijing) and authorize the imposition of wide-ranging sanctions on Beijing in the event of conflict over Taiwan, made it through. Notably, the Committee added $2 billion in foreign military financing.
As Menendez’s NYT piece notes, “this effort would be the most comprehensive restructuring of U.S. policy toward Taiwan since the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.” And that’s right.
The effort to modernize and sharpen the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which underpins the delicate U.S. relationship with Taipei, is long in coming and represents a serious effort on the part of Congress to begin to face up to a likely Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the coming years. Ironically, the Taiwan Relations Act was itself a congressional effort to ensure the United States did not completely abandon the small democratic Republic of China in the wake of U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic of China.
Menendez’s effort with Graham (and supported by SFRC ranking member Jim Risch), like Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taipei, has not been warmly welcomed by the White House. National security officials have been reticent, but the vibe—of a piece with the President’s confused efforts to persuade Pelosi to stay home—has been unhappy. The executive branch is leery of congressional efforts to dictate foreign policy or wedge the president into a corner even in the best of times. And, to be fair, even well-known China hawks have been hesitant to throw their full weight behind the Taiwan bill, fretting that it escalates tensions with Beijing before a deeper security partnership with Taipei is in place.
Quibbles notwithstanding, the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 is headed for the full Senate. Expect to see the administration’s water carriers making their arguments to go slow as China expands its domination of the South China Sea and continues its aggressive incursions into Taiwanese territorial waters. The bill faces substantial hurdles ahead, and only one thing is certain: Menendez’s crusade to restore congressional influence over foreign policy will continue. And at a time of deepening partisan divides and diminishing returns for the politically independent-minded, that, at least, is a good thing.