Joe Lieberman has been gone from the Senate for nearly a year, but someone unexpected has replaced him as the chamber’s leading liberal hawk. And unlike Lieberman, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez—chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee—hasn’t worn out his welcome with fellow Democrats.
Menendez wants to move forward with new sanctions on Iran, despite concerns that this will short-circuit negotiations with Tehran, while reinstating those lifted by the interim nuclear deal. “I do not believe we should further reduce our sanctions, nor abstain from preparations to impose new sanctions,” he said after the pact was announced.
“What I don’t appreciate is when I hear remarks out of the White House spokesman that … if we’re pursuing sanctions we’re marching the country off to war,” Menendez complained on NPR. “I think that’s way over the top, I think that’s fear-mongering.”
Menendez wasn’t afraid of marching the country off to war in Syria earlier this year. He warned that “not acting has huge consequences for the United States,” engaging in rhetoric redolent of Bush-era hawkishness.
“It sends a message to North Korea about our determination to stop them from continuing to make the Korean Peninsula a nuclear peninsula,” Menendez continued. “It sends a message to terrorist groups seeking access to chemical weapons because the world will largely stand by when you use them.”
Dealing with Syria’s dictatorship, the senator assured a committee hearing, is little different from confronting a bully in the streets of Jersey City. “I got a piece of wood and whacked the bully and that was the end of it,” Menendez said of a construction site encounter. “I never got whacked again.”
New Jersey’s now-senior senator also supported the use of force for regime change in Libya in 2011. “Qaddafi is a terrorist—the moral equivalent of Osama bin Laden,” Menendez said in a statement. He had written the Senate resolution proposing a no-fly zone over Libya.
Menendez had worked with Lieberman and Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk to keep up the sanctions pressure on Iran before the Obama administration became directly involved in diplomacy. “Yes, our sanctions are having a significant impact, but Iran continues their work to develop nuclear weapons,” he said last year. David Frum has argued that Menendez and Kirk should receive credit for any diplomatic resolution of the conflict with Iran, not Barack Obama.
Menendez’s quiet emergence as the neocons’ new favorite Democratic senator is something of a surprise. While in the House, he voted against the Iraq war—a fact that he frequently trumpeted after receiving an interim appointment to the Senate and while campaigning for a full term in 2006.
“I pledge to you that I will never send New Jerseyans into a war that I would be unwilling to send my own son or daughter to fight,” Menendez vowed when his appointment was announced in 2005. “So I voted for liberating Afghanistan and bringing the killers of Sept. 11 to justice, but when faced with the prospect of supporting a war of choice in Iraq, I stood up to the president and voted no.”
Menendez’s opponent in the ensuing Senate race was Tom Keane Jr., son of a popular former Republican governor of New Jersey. Even in a blue state and banner Democratic year, the campaign was relatively competitive. But Kean unwisely criticized Menendez’s Iraq vote.
“Bob Menendez is weak on national defense,” the Republican said in a debate. “He is a ‘dove’ who sides with the extreme-left wing of his party, unless it’s politically opportune to do otherwise.”
Menendez shot back: “I’m proud to have voted against Bush’s war in Iraq right from the start—even when it was unpopular to do so. The Bush administration failed to make the case that Iraq was an imminent threat to our national security.” He added: “there was no conclusive evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.”
Since winning that race, Menendez has been awfully quick to accept WMD claims and entertain support for wars of choice. And while he insists that continuing to pile on sanctions in Iran is the best way to ensure that diplomacy succeeds, many others believe such moves will undermine the negotiations that, Menendez’s protestations aside, represent the best chance to defuse the situation without reverting to military force.
It is worth noting that many of Menendez’s allies on sanctions at this point have spoken about authorizing the use of force. He doesn’t seem to think Lindsey Graham is “over the top” or engaged in “fear mongering.”
Menendez was reelected last year, without a Ned Lamont in sight.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?