A Contrived Controversy

Rule of Law by from The Weekly Standard, March 23, 2015

Finally, a debate about Iran. Last week, 47 Republican senators released a public letter addressed to the leaders of the Iranian regime. The letter made what might have seemed a self-evident point: If the Obama administration reaches a deal with Iran, Congress will not be bound by parts of the deal to which it has not assented.

Then, hysteria.

“The letter to Iranian leaders from 47 Republican senators could well destroy critical bipartisanship in U.S. foreign policy for years to come and treacherously undermine the bargaining power of the person constitutionally authorized to conduct American affairs abroad—the President of the United States,” wrote Les Gelb, president emeritus and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “On top of what House speaker John Boehner did by unilaterally inviting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress, this letter seriously points to one terrible conclusion: a formidable number of congressional Republicans hate President Obama more than they love America.”

The New York Daily News labeled “traitors” the letter’s signatories and its author, Senator Tom Cotton (combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bronze Star). Max Fisher at Vox.com called the letter “unprecedented” and claimed Republicans were bringing their legislative obstructionism to “the previously sacrosanct realm of foreign policy.” John Kerry bellowed that the “letter ignores more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of American foreign policy.” Hillary Clinton claimed that if the senators’ objective wasn’t to undermine the president, it was to help the mullahs in Iran. President Obama accused senators of forming a “coalition” with Iran’s hardliners. NBC News called the letter “stunning” and declared that it signaled an end to the days when politics stopped at the water’s edge.

We’ll resist the temptation to attach labels to those making these claims or offer judgments on their love of country. Instead, some perspective:

•In 1979, Senator Robert Byrd traveled to the Soviet Union during the SALT II talks to “personally explain the requirements of our Constitution” to Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev. Byrd later wrote: “In Leningrad, I explained that I had come to the Soviet Union neither to praise nor condemn the treaty but to create a better understanding of the treaty in the Senate and to explain to the Soviets the Senate’s constitutional role in treatymaking.”

•In the early 1980s, Senator Ted Kennedy secretly approached leaders of the Soviet Union with a proposal: I’ll help you with Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup if you help me defeat him in the 1984 presidential election. Former senator John Tunney conveyed the offer on Kennedy’s behalf.

•In April 1985, as the Reagan administration sought to limit Soviet influence in Central America, Senator John Kerry traveled to Nicaragua, met with Communist strongman Daniel Ortega, and accused the Reagan administration of supporting “terrorism” against the government there. Said Kerry, “Senator Harkin and I are going to Nicaragua as Vietnam-era veterans who are alarmed that the Reagan administration is repeating the mistakes we made in Vietnam.” Kerry’s trip followed a letter from a group of House Democrats led by majority leader Jim Wright to Ortega. The “Dear Comandante” letter declared: “We regret the fact that better relations do not exist between the United States and your country. We have been, and remain, opposed to U.S. support for military action directed against the people or government of Nicaragua. We want to commend you and your government for taking steps to open up the political process in your country.”

•In 1990, former President Jimmy Carter secretly wrote to the leaders of the U.N. Security Council nations urging them to oppose a resolution offered by his own country. The existence of the letter was revealed when one of its recipients shared a copy with the White House. President George H. W. Bush was “furious” at the “deliberate attempt to undermine” his foreign policy, according to his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft.

•In 2002, in the heat of the congressional debate over the authorization of the Iraq war, the second-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, David Bonior, traveled to Baghdad with two fellow Democrats to oppose the imminent invasion. Democratic congressman Jim McDermott appeared on ABC’s This Week from Baghdad to denounce President George W. Bush and propagandize for Saddam Hussein. Shakir al-Khafaji, a well-known fixer for the Iraqi regime and a longtime supporter of Bonior, arranged the visit. The Democrats vigorously denied that they had accepted Iraqi regime funding for the trip. Documents uncovered in postwar Iraq demonstrated that their claim was untrue.

•In 2007, newly elected House speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Syria to meet with dictator Bashar al-Assad. At the time of the trip, the Bush administration was seeking to isolate Assad, whose regime was supporting insurgents in Iraq who were targeting U.S. troops. Pelosi disregarded the administration’s request to cancel her trip. Instead, she appeared in Damascus and reassured the world that Assad was eager to be a constructive player in the region and wanted peace with Israel.

Politics long ago stopped at the water’s edge. Those who pretend otherwise are either ignorant or intellectually dishonest. Of course, the past behavior of Democrats doesn’t justify the Republican letter on Iran.

The letter needs no justification.

Forty-seven elected senators made a fact-based, substantive argument, in public, about a matter of critical importance to the national security of the United States. They did so after the Obama administration fought a bipartisan congressional push for triggered sanctions and restricted the ability of members of Congress to discuss in public the interim agreement with Iran, and after President Obama himself made clear that he would veto legislation intended to force the administration to include Congress. The administration’s position is this: Any agreement with Iran will be secret until it’s signed; congressional input is unwelcome and may be unpatriotic; and Congress will accept and abide by all terms of the deal whether its members approve or not.

The Framers of the Constitution wisely gave the executive branch the dominant role in shaping the nation’s foreign and security policies. But they entrusted those powers to a president, not a king. The arrangement proposed by the Obama administration is not only contrary to the role assigned Congress by the Framers, it’s the opposite of what Senators Obama and Biden argued during their presidential campaign in 2008.

The following comes from the Obama campaign website. It spells out the need for congressional approval of a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq.

Obama and Biden believe any Status of Forces Agreement, or any strategic framework agreement, should be negotiated in the context of a broader commitment by the U.S. to begin withdrawing its troops and forswearing permanent bases. Obama and Biden also believe that any security accord must be subject to congressional approval. It is unacceptable that the Iraqi government will present the agreement to the Iraqi parliament for approval—yet the Bush administration will not do the same with the U.S. Congress. The Bush administration must submit the agreement to Congress or allow the next administration to negotiate an agreement that has bipartisan support here at home and makes absolutely clear that the U.S. will not maintain permanent bases in Iraq.

This presents an obvious question: Why is it imperative that Congress approve an agreement between the United States and Iraq, an emerging ally, but the president alone can finalize a deal between the United States and Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism?

Remind us: Who is politicizing national security?

Let’s be clear about what’s happening here. The feigned outrage from the White House and its supporters is just the latest of several attempts (a) to distract from the evident shift in the Obama administration’s position on Iran—from blocking Iran’s development of nuclear weapons to managing it, (b) to silence opposition to the deal, and (c) to blame Congress for any diplomatic failure. (Obama said back in mid-January that Congress would “own” any diplomatic failure.)

A final point: The Cotton letter has already achieved its goal. We are, finally, engaged in a serious national debate about the threat from Iran. That is something the Obama administration has avoided for six years. No more.

Unlike, say, John Kerry or Ted Kennedy, and unlike David Bonior and Nancy Pelosi, these senators gave no succor to dictators and despots. Instead, these 47 patriotic senators merely told the enemy a hard truth about American government. A serious administration intent on stopping Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons would use the letter and the concern it conveys as leverage in negotiations.

Instead, they’ve given us a contrived controversy and an emboldened Iran.

© 2015 Weekly Standard LLC. Reprinted with permission.