Menendez the menace

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, May 07 2021

If New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez gets his way, the Biden administration will continue to immiserate the Venezuelan people via sanctions, fail to restore the Iran nuclear deal, and preserve one of the more ridiculous relics of the Cold War—the blockade against Cuba. And, as Menendez has made clear, he does intend to use his position as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get his way.

As we’ve noted before, we don’t consider the Biden foreign policy team a font of wisdom. Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan have a history of supporting ill-fated interventions, military and otherwise; their presence at the seat of power is discouraging testament to the pervasive influence of the Blob. But it’s not as discouraging as the fact that the most powerful congressional foreign policy figure in their own party makes them seem dovish by comparison.

Consider Menendez’s latest masterpiece: the “Strategic Competition Act.” The bill, co-sponsored by Menendez and Republican Jim Risch, is characterized by the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine as “a de facto declaration of a cold war with the People’s Republic of China.”

Here is a sentence from it: “The US must ensure that all Federal departments and agencies are organized to reflect the fact that strategic competition with [China] is the US top foreign policy priority.”

All agencies? The Federal Housing Finance Agency? The Minority Business Development Agency? The Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia? The Botanic Garden (or any of the 23 other agencies that start with the letter B—to say nothing of the 61 that start with the letter F)? Do the 21 (out of 22!) senators who voted to send this bill out of the foreign relations committee in late April really think we should structure our entire federal government to compete with Beijing?

Probably not—that’s the problem; they don’t even go to the trouble of thinking about the actual meaning of legislation, except to ask what effect it will have on the mood of donors (defense contractors, say) or major constituent groups. That’s one reason a committee chair like Menendez has so much power.    

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Among the ways the bill would strain relations with China is by threatening what may be America’s most successful diplomatic fiction: the “one China” policy. Under this policy, the US acknowledges in some technical sense China’s claims over Taiwan even as Taiwan remains, in effect, an independent country—and Beijing guarantees the US that it will resolve the territorial dispute peacefully. This fiction falls apart if Taiwan officially declares independence and the US establishes formal diplomatic ties with the island’s government. And the Strategic Competition Act would remove restrictions on diplomatic contacts with Taiwan—a move that could infuriate Chinese leaders and risk escalation.

The China bill is actually a dual-use weapon. Menendez and Risch quietly added an amendment that requires detailed reporting on negotiations of international agreements—a requirement that could amount to a “poison pill” for diplomacy with Iran, according to the reporting of Matthew Petti in Responsible Statecraft. Activists and Congressional staffers told Petti the amendment could be used to force the disclosure of sensitive details that might complicate the negotiations.

Menendez’s obsession with Iran is a remarkable thing. Earlier this year he reportedly threatened to hold up Biden’s foreign policy nominees if the president failed to take a hard line on Iran. (He joined Republicans in grilling Wendy Sherman—then a nominee for the number two job at the State Department, which she eventually got—for her role in negotiating the 2015 Iran deal.) At every turn, Menendez has teamed up with hawkish Republicans to hold the Biden administration’s feet to the fire.

And there is reason to think that his influence on Biden’s foreign policy extends well beyond Iran. Biden has maintained a hawkish posture toward Venezuela and Cuba, two of Menendez’s top priorities. The case of Cuba is particularly odd given Biden’s campaign promise to reverse Trump’s stance toward the country and his time in the Obama administration, which avidly pursued detente. Former Obama staffer Ben Rhodes is sufficiently puzzled to have tweeted, “So far, Biden has been completely indistinguishable from Trump on Cuba policy and messaging.”

Policies aside, there are legitimate questions as to whether someone with Menendez’s ethical history should sit at the head of one of Congress’s most powerful committees. In 2015, he was indicted for allegedly using his political position to benefit the business interests of a friend and donor. While his case resulted in a mistrial, the Senate Ethics Committee concluded in 2018 that Menendez “used [his] position as a Member of the Senate to advance [his donor’s] personal and business interests” and “violated Senate Rules, federal law, and applicable standards of conduct.”

We wish we could say that this is the most damaging way Menendez has wielded his influence in the Senate.

This piece originally appeared in The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media and consider subscribing.

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(Photo credit: Senator Bob Menendez, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

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