The road to Joe Biden’s foreign policy runs through Bob Menendez – Politico

He’s hopeful, though, that things will change under Biden — and that he can be the person to get Congress to fall in line.

“Beyond the realities of a 50-50 Senate, when we talk about foreign policy, whenever we can get a bipartisan basis for something — maybe not absolute, 100 members — we are stronger in the world,” Menendez (D-N.J.) said in an interview. “And I believe President Biden believes that.”

The White House is off to a rough start, however. Menendez quickly registered his dissatisfaction last week when the Biden team did not give him a heads up about the president’s retaliatory strikes against Iranian installations in Syria; and he and other Democrats are already calling for more severe punishments against Saudi Arabia after a U.S. intelligence report officially pinned the blame for journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder on the kingdom’s crown prince and de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman.

“I am hopeful it is only a first step and that the administration plans to take concrete measures holding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for his role in this heinous crime,” Menendez said in a statement.

It’s not surprising, then, that there is an ongoing White House campaign to curry favor with Menendez, who hasn’t been afraid to break with his party and has a history of making matters difficult for presidents who try to strong-arm Congress. Keeping Menendez in the loop will be critical for Biden’s foreign policy successes.

“That makes all the difference in the world,” Menendez said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to agree 100 percent of the time. But it does mean that we will understand each other, where we’re coming from — and more likely than not, we will agree.”

That may be a touch optimistic.

The hawkish Menendez and the Biden administration are likely to disagree on a handful of key areas: the Iran nuclear deal, U.S. relations with Cuba, the use of U.S. military force overseas and what to do in regard to Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan dictator.

Broadly speaking, Menendez has taken a hard line on authoritarian regimes and he frowns on negotiations or deals that appear to give any concessions to those governments. He likely won’t take it easy on the Biden team, many of whose members served under Obama, as they seek to salvage agreements like the Iran deal, or reestablish ties with Cuba — relationships that were damaged under former President Donald Trump. He’ll also insist on greater congressional say if and when the United States uses military force overseas.

The Biden team is “right to want to have a good relationship with him. They’re going to agree with him on a lot of things,” said Ben Rhodes, who served as a key force behind diplomatic openings with Cuba and Iran during the Obama years.

“But at a certain point, there’s a Senate view and an administration view, and unless you want [Menendez] to be in charge of your Cuba policy, your Venezuela policy or your Iran policy, you’re likely going to reach a point where you have to have a difficult conversation,” Rhodes said.

A “sounding board” and an ally

Just a month into the new administration, Menendez told POLITICO that Biden’s team is already abandoning the Obama model — which he said did not always value Congress’ role in shaping U.S. foreign policy — and instead working closely with the Senate to coordinate and seek input.

Indeed, senators have reasons to be optimistic. Biden is a former chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken is the former staff director for the panel.

“You haven’t had an administration as populated with people who understand the role of the Senate, and also how helpful the Senate can be,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a senior member of the Foreign Relations panel who is close with Menendez. “I think they have a huge opportunity with Bob as the chair, given who the players are in the administration, to really have a very good working relationship.”

But Kaine has been among the loudest critics of Biden’s airstrikes in Syria last week, arguing that the president should have sought an authorization from Congress. Kaine has been leading the charge for years to scrap the 2001 and 2002 war authorizations that presidents from both parties have used to justify U.S. military activity in the Middle East.

Biden’s top deputies, apparently eager to not repeat the perceived mistakes of the Obama administration, are already working to keep Menendez happy.

In an on-the-record statement to POLITICO, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan called Menendez “a sounding board, a source of advice, and a leading voice on the most important national security issues of our time. My team and I are making it a personal priority to reach out and engage regularly with him and his team, and we will continue to do so.”

In a separate on-the-record statement, Blinken promised similar engagement, saying Menendez “has proven himself to be both principled and effective.”

But don’t poke the Bob

Menendez’s allies say the Biden administration would cross him at its own peril — especially when Biden is looking for lawmakers’ support for a major foreign policy initiative. Menendez’s penchant for working closely with Republicans can be an asset to an administration that came into office emphasizing bipartisanship. And in a 50-50 Senate, every vote counts.

“I would encourage the Biden administration to pick his brain, because if Bob can get onto something, Republicans are going to take it seriously,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview.

Menendez has vowed to conduct vigorous oversight of the Biden administration’s foreign policy — something that was sorely lacking under former President Donald Trump, whose administration routinely flouted Congress, ignored the law, and was openly hostile to both Democrats and Republicans.

“When things aren’t going as well as they should, don’t expect Sen. Menendez to lay back. I expect he’ll be pretty aggressive,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the second-highest ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Presidents have long sought to blunt efforts by Congress to hamstring the executive branch. Cardin experienced that hostility first-hand when he led the charge in 2012 for the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russian human rights violators. Obama ultimately signed the bill into law, but Cardin said his White House was “hostile toward Congress” because lawmakers were seeking to address an issue that was traditionally controlled by the executive branch.

“There’s been, historically, under-performance by every administration on dealing with Congress. There is a view that they can do this without us,” Cardin added.

Menendez felt that the Obama administration did not consult enough with him in advance of making key foreign policy decisions. Despite his senior rank on the committee of jurisdiction, major moves were often presented to him as a fait accompli, people who know Menendez said.

“They didn’t consult enough on the Iran deal. They just didn’t,” said a person close to Menendez. “They knew it was his No. 1 issue.”

Obama aides may have had reasons for this — worrying that Menendez would draw red lines that would box in their options. Menendez in particular is loath to appear soft on authoritarian regimes in places like Cuba and Iran.

Even if the Biden administration keeps Menendez looped in to his satisfaction, he may ultimately disagree with some of their initiatives. But he might not go out of his way to present obstacles if they keep him informed.

“I think it is important to include [us], as long as people are engaged in good faith, not just in being obstructionists at the end of the day,” Menendez said.

Former Obama administration officials agreed that keeping Menendez engaged early on was critical, but also said that everyone understands the implications of a Senate split 50-50 between the two parties. Menendez won’t want to be seen as a spoiler for his fellow Democrats, some said.

“I have every reason to believe it will be a cooperative effort,” one of the former officials said. “I don’t think [the Biden team] thinks he’ll try to screw them.”

That being said, there is some nervousness in Biden circles about the Senate confirmation odds facing some of the new president’s nominees who worked on the 2015 Iran deal.

In particular, Biden aides are concerned about Wendy Sherman, a lead negotiator on the Iran deal who is nominated to serve as deputy secretary of State. Menendez will play a key role in whether her nomination is approved.

That has led to speculation that one reason Biden has staked out a relatively tough line on Iran at the moment — demanding Tehran return to compliance with the nuclear deal before the U.S. lifts sanctions — is to assuage Menendez and other Iran hawks as they consider Sherman’s nomination.

“I do think they’re worried about nominations,” another former Obama administration official said of the Biden team. “That’s part of the reason I think you’re seeing a harder line on Iran right now.”

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The road to Joe Biden’s foreign policy runs through Bob Menendez – Politico

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