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Partisanship and Diplomacy

Paul Pillar worries about the incentives for partisans to undermine a comprehensive deal with Iran simply to score points against the administration:

If a final deal along the lines outlined by the Joint Plan of Action is achieved, it probably will indeed be perceived, once Mr. Obama reaches the end of his term, as one of the most significant foreign policy accomplishments of his presidency. To carry the comparison with Obamacare ever further, a destructive response can include not only opposition up front to try to prevent enactment in the first place but also, after enactment—or in this case, after the signing of a final agreement with Iran—continuing efforts to keep the law or the agreement from working. In the case of the Iranian nuclear program, some of this sort of after-the-fact sabotage is foreshadowed by provisions in the Kirk-Menendez bill that Levine examines.

One can hope that this unfortunate scenario will not come to pass because enough Republicans will not only do what is good for the republic but also see support for an agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear program as good politics.

Pillar suggests that there may be reasons for hope, since presumably none of the principals in the administration will be running for office again and the most likely Democratic presidential nominee (i.e., Clinton) is not associated with Iran diplomacy. Because of that, he argues that Republicans will have fewer incentives to try to derail a deal. He also notes that the conclusion of a comprehensive deal could be something that politicians from both parties would want endorse and take partial credit for. I certainly hope that turns out to be the case, but that doesn’t bear much resemblance to the foreign policy debate of the last five years.

We just have to think back to the debate over New START in 2010 to recall how intensely Republicans opposed an utterly uncontroversial and modest arms reduction treaty simply because the administration wanted it to be ratified. The objections to the treaty were all spurious or wildly overstated, but getting enough Republicans to vote for ratification was absurdly difficult given the nature of the agreement. If getting a handful of Republicans to ratify an unremarkable arms reduction treaty was that much of an ordeal, one can easily imagine how much more bitterly and intensely they and Democratic hawks are going to fight a deal with Iran. A comprehensive deal with Iran would clearly be in U.S. interests, but it is obviously much more controversial in Washington, and it is also potentially risky for Republicans because of intra-party pressures. Because it is a deal negotiated by Obama and Kerry, it is one that few if any Republicans would want to be associated with. The problem is not just that they would be pilloried as “weak” on Iran, but that they would be accused of being too supportive of an Obama initiative, which at this point is politically the more damaging of the two. I fear that the best that can realistically be expected is many many members of Congress can be discouraged from supporting legislation that sabotages negotiations by identifying such efforts as the reckless and irresponsible things that they are.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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