The Senate ‘Foreign’ Relations Committee plays to a domestic constituency

It was the late Tip O’Neil who famously coined the phrase, “all politics is local.’  If ever there was a need to be reminded of this fact, it is surely in conjuncture with the latest outburst from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. For anyone watching the news coverage of the events surrounding the latest efforts to besmirch the name of BP, a logical question to ask is, who one Earth is Senator Robert Menendez, and how did he suddenly become the Chair of such a powerful Senate Committee?

The simple answer is that he is not. Despite media claims to the contrary, Senator Menendez is NOT the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this honour still rests with the former Democratic candidate for president, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. Why then is the media misrepresenting Menendez’s role in all of this?

The Senate is made up of 2 elected officials from every state in the Union. Of these, some 19 serve on the Foreign Relations Committee, designed to oversee the foreign policy agencies of the federal government. Accordingly, these members provide oversight into the actions of the State Department, the CIA etc. However, not all members will take the same degree of interest in all activities. These senators may be examining foreign policy, but they remain domestic politicians, dependent upon a domestic constituency for their political lives and financial viability. Accordingly, members of the ‘Foreign’ Relations Committee have one eye on the globe and another on their home state. As events occur that impact their home state, they will take a special interest. And this is what has occurred in this instance. The Pan Am flight was returned to New York’s JFK airport and accordingly, it is senators from the Empire State and the Garden State of Jersey who are taking the lead on this matter.

Senators serve a fixed 6 year term in office, 2 years longer than the president and as such have a great deal of power in Washington. However, even they need to face the electorate and can only do so armed with their achievements (or otherwise) of their time in office.  Which is to say that Senator Menendez has to bring home the bacon, to become a name on the Hill and in the country at large in order to deliver for New Jersey.  This can be a very unforgiving state, as Jon Corzine recently discovered. One way to achieve these results is to jump on a bandwagon, and it would appear that this is just what the good senator from the Garden State has done.

By seemingly convincing the world’s media that he is Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has gained sudden global exposure by attempting to question Scottish and English lawmakers in relation to the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the one individual convicted of blowing Pan Am flight 103 out of the sky in December 1988. By linking this decision to the plight of BP, the senator is on to a winner domestically, as few would be willing to defend the actions of the multi-national giant in the face of evidence that it helped lobby to release this terrorist in exchange for drilling rights. Menendez’s day in the sun was done initially by inviting former PM Tony Blair to testify, a decision that was VERY hastily withdrawn. The attention of the world’s media having been attained, Menendez extended his kind invitation to a series of lower level politicians, all of whom politely declined.

As I stated on the BBC and Sky News, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is very influential. Domestically. But it has no international jurisdiction. Whatsoever. No one is under any obligation to play ball with this inquiry and efforts to suggest otherwise are quite wrong. Not that it makes anyone look good. It is possible that reputations will be reduced as a result of all this. Quite what Americans must be thinking of their former hero, Tony Blair, when they see him grinning from ear to ear with Colonel Gaddafi, as BP sign their oil deal, is anyone’s guess. He is rapidly becoming all too reminiscent of the characature of himself in Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost: A politician out of power, out of luck and out of friends.

It is not often (nor indeed ever) that I find myself in complete agreement with Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, but his comments on Newsnight were on the button last night. If members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wish to come over for meetings to discuss the situation, great. But do not for one minute be under the illusion that lawmakers from Scotland or England are under any obligation to appear before their body in an official capacity. American claims of ‘stonewalling’ are amazing to hear when one considers that numerous hearings that have been held (and are still ongoing) into events that the US initiated but to which their officials have steadfastly refused to attend.

Senator Menendez has sought the spotlight to highlight to his constituents (many of whom lost loved ones on the Pan Am disaster) that he is doing all he can on their behalf. This is admirable enough, but it must be recognised for what it is: Domestic politics. Last night he raised the spectre of former security service personal being involved in oil deals and negotiations. I suspect that the whole area of secret deals involving oil, he security services etc will be an area that he will be wise to avoid. Like the international arms trade, there are some things that go one that no one wants examined, as a citizen of New Jersey, the good Senator will doubtless understand this.

The grandstanding also helps conceal the Senator’s role in helping to plan for the upcoming elections, that Democrats are expected to do poorly in. With little else to campaign on, his record is not looking so hot. By tilting at international bad guys, he can elevate himself to a whole new playing field. Who he climbs over in his efforts to secure his domestic reputation, will be another matter.

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