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The GOP Senate Leadership’s Iran Letter Was No Mistake

Daniel Larison is not nearly outraged enough [1] by the Senate’s intrusion into the negotiations with Iran. What Senator Cotton and his colleagues are doing is deliberately trying to cripple America’s ability to conduct foreign policy. And, at least in terms of domestic politics, it may well work.

First of all, let’s dispense with the notion that there is any principled Constitutional question at issue whatsoever. Senator Tom Cotton does not believe for one instant that the President is incapable of entering into binding agreements with foreign governments, nor does he believe that Congress or subsequent administrations can dispense with such agreements without cost. We know this because he believes that the Budapest Memorandum [2] – which was not a treaty and was not submitted to the Senate for ratification – constitutes a binding promise to support Ukraine in its conflict with Russian-backed separatists, and that he believes failing to live up to this promise poses grave danger to the credibility of U.S. foreign policy generally. Here [3] is video of Senator Cotton saying as much.

So imagine, if you will, a Senate faction opposed to the Budapest Memorandum (perhaps out of fear that it signing it would oblige America to do precisely what Senator Cotton thinks it does oblige us to do) sending a letter to the Ukrainian president in 1994 alerting them that such an agreement would properly have to be submitted to the Senate for ratification, and might well fail, and that a subsequent president could revoke its guarantees at will. A hypothetical Senator Cotton-equivalent would readily understand that the purpose of such an effort was to obstruct the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy, and would be alarmed at the implications for the credibility of America’s commitments around the world.

Right? Of course right.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the Senate’s responsibility with respect to “advice and consent,” and nothing to do with asserting the legislature’s proper role in foreign affairs – a role that the legislature continues conspicuously to abdicate. (The Obama administration has been in regular violation of the War Powers Resolution for years, but while individual senators and representatives have pointed this out from time to time, Congress has taken no action, and I don’t expect it ever will.) I don’t expect much from most of the crowd of signatories, but Senator Paul in particular should be excoriated for participating in this stunt. If he thinks this is a “constitutionally conservative” move, he needs to have his head handed to him by people who actually know what they are talking about.

Substantively, the view of the Republican leadership appears to be that any of America’s threats to use force, however ambiguous or slight, must be backed up vigorously for fear of a loss of “credibility.” Diplomatic agreements, however, are not to be taken seriously, because they may be discarded whenever a new leadership disagrees with what a previous administration agreed to. They affirmatively wish such agreements not to be credible, so that they are never entered into. And, funnily enough, if you cripple America’s diplomacy you’ll have lots of opportunities to demonstrate the “credibility” of America’s threats to use force. Which is exactly the goal – because such situations play to the GOP’s strengths as a brand.

And unfortunately, the Republican leadership may well be able to achieve their goals. Not internationally – I doubt the Iranians did more than roll their eyes at this stunt – but domestically. It turns out to be relatively easy to manipulate the public into supporting a more aggressive foreign policy. If talks with Iran fail (which they might have done regardless), it is vanishingly unlikely that the American people will blame the GOP leadership in any way that matters. On the contrary: if the talks fail, the country will be more supportive of a more aggressive stance toward Iran, which will redound to the benefit of the GOP generally and its more hawkish members in particular. So long as that’s the electoral dynamic, there are literally no disincentives for this kind of outrageous behavior.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Senator McConnell, the negotiations with Iran may prove to have been a hostage worth shooting.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "The GOP Senate Leadership’s Iran Letter Was No Mistake"

#1 Comment By Zech On March 10, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

If under a Republican administration the Democrats had pulled these kinds of stunt – threatening debt default to achieve policy concessions, inviting a foreign premier to address congress against the President’s wishes in order to undermine the negotiation of a treaty with another foreign state, communicating directly with that other state to scupper the treaty, etc. – this would be routinely condemned as treason by the GOP and conservative press.

#2 Comment By Jay On March 10, 2015 @ 4:18 pm

I sometimes wonder if people like Senator Cotton and the neocons are really conservatives. Their whole philosophy of dealing with the world is very Maoist – Power comes only from the barrel of a gun.

#3 Comment By sean On March 10, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

“If he thinks this is a “constitutionally conservative” move, he needs to have his head handed to him by people who actually know what they are talking about.”

Amen. Rand’s political shamelessness is incredible.

#4 Comment By Clint On March 10, 2015 @ 4:36 pm

David Rivkin, constitutional litigator with Baker Hostetler, LLP who served in the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush Administrations.
“An executive agreement never overrides inconsistent legislation and is incapable of overriding any of the sanctions legislation. A treaty that has been submitted for Senate’s advise and consent and if it’s self-executing could do that.”

#5 Comment By The Other Sands On March 10, 2015 @ 6:13 pm

Zech, what is equally astounding about these GOP tactics is that none of them have worked. They have basically lost every standoff for the last 6 years and achieved very little of their agenda on anything.

As for this letter, I wish more people were questioning where it came from. Do you really thing that freshman Senator Tom Cotton drafted this and got 47 senators, including the leadership, to quietly sign on in a matter of days? Only AIPAC gets Congress to stand and salute that efficiently.

#6 Comment By Shaun Peterson On March 10, 2015 @ 6:26 pm

I’m just numb to it all anymore. Everyday they get crazier and crazier with no repercussions. Dark days lie ahead for the country.

#7 Comment By William Dalton On March 11, 2015 @ 12:32 am

If the negotiations proceed to a successful agreement, and at this point I think the President has more incentive than before to stick it in the eye of his Congressional opponents, it will not go well with Republicans who seek to block its implementation. First of all, because of the Netanyahu and Iranian letter stunts, the President will now have the votes to sustain his veto of any blocking legislation. Secondly, when it comes time to lift sanctions on Iran, pursuant to such an agreement, Congress will be in the position of either refusing to lift sanctions which are being lifted off Iran by the other P5+1 states, which failure can hurt only the United States, not Iran, or it will see the President lift these sanctions by a unilateral “executive order”, just as Obama has lifted immigration restrictions Congress has refused to amend.

And, having violated the Logan Act by their invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress as well as the Iran letter, Republicans will no longer be in a position to complain that the President is “breaking the law”.

#8 Comment By Zech On March 11, 2015 @ 8:53 am

@ The Other Sands

They’ve been unsuccessful in terms of policy, but as Jonathan Bernstein has pointed out, the GOP appears to be largely ‘post-policy’. They’re responding to other incentives. Maybe their agenda is not a policy agenda as such, but a campaign of delegitimisation and an attempt to move the Overton window, both of which have arguably succeeded.

The endgame is blocking as much as possible until they get the Presidency. Then perhaps we’ll see a policy agenda.

They have guessed, seemingly correctly, that the public won’t blame them for these tactics, they’ll judge the executive on all governmental results (and indeed on economic outcomes that don’t have much to do with government policy).

This seems to me a dangerous development for your admirable brand of democracy, because it gives the out party a tangible incentive to act to the detriment of the country, knowing they won’t take too much of the blame and stand to be rewarded electorally.

#9 Comment By JLF On March 11, 2015 @ 9:03 am

What is the endgame? What does a permanent peace in the Middle East look like? What happens to the displaced Palestinians?

From the Israeli perspective I suspect there are no definitive answers to these questions. From Cotton, from most of the signatories to the Senate letter, and from most of their supporters I suspect the answer is some version of “When Jesus returns . . . .” I just wish they had the courage of their convictions – not to mention faith in their religion – to come right out and say so.

#10 Comment By Darth Thulhu On March 11, 2015 @ 10:23 am

Rand Paul was always, at absolute best, merely the least bad of a rum bunch.

He was always going to be zany and super-corporatist on domestic policy … but that might have been tolerable as a least of evils, especially in comparison to an equally corporatist excrescence like Clinton, if he was actually not a mindless incompetent warmonger, and if he was willing to clear house on Republican neoconservatives in the foreign policy establishment.

But nowadays? There’s absolutely no distinction worth anything between him and all the rest. He’s going to be another incoherent Likudnik shill for all issues beyond the water’s edge, and he is going to grossly undermine our nation’s actual external interests across the board, regardless of his earlier rhetoric.

Obama, as bad as he is on aggressive foreign policy and murderous unauthorized drone warfare, is nowhere near as bad as Clinton would have been. Rand Paul, unfortunately, is making it quite clear that he will be even worse than Clinton, horrifying as that prospect already is.

#11 Comment By MikeCLT On March 11, 2015 @ 3:23 pm

This stunt is deplorable. The opposition party should make their opposition known to the president not to the leaders of a foreign country with whom we are negotiating. Criticism stops at the water’s edge, right?

I know the Democrats have done similar things to undermine the foreign policy of Republican presidents with which they disagreed. But it doesn’t justify what the GOP did here regarding Iran.

#12 Comment By cdugga On March 11, 2015 @ 5:29 pm

Zech says “They have guessed, seemingly correctly, that the public won’t blame them for these tactics, they’ll judge the executive on all governmental results (and indeed on economic outcomes that don’t have much to do with government policy).

This seems to me a dangerous development for your admirable brand of democracy, because it gives the out party a tangible incentive to act to the detriment of the country, knowing they won’t take too much of the blame and stand to be rewarded electorally.” Exactly. How did we get here? The combination of a changing and crappy economy with a black president to blame for everything in the world. Seeking office through spite can happen when the public does not even understand what that is. And even here at TAC we see the same old defense of, well democrats do it too. The congress is held in contempt because, well, democrats do it too!

#13 Comment By Josh On March 12, 2015 @ 1:41 am

@MikeCLT?

What things of this sort have Democrats done to undermine the foreign policy of a Republican president? It’s not enough to merely say something like that. You have to actually give an example, and ideally more than one, since you implied multiple instances.

#14 Comment By Canof Sand On March 12, 2015 @ 5:23 am

“First of all, let’s dispense with the notion that there is any principled Constitutional question at issue whatsoever. Senator Tom Cotton does not believe for one instant that the President is incapable of entering into binding agreements with foreign governments”

Ahem.

John Kerry: Tom Cotton’s right, we’re not negotiating a legally binding deal with Iran
[4]

You lose.

#15 Comment By cdugga On March 12, 2015 @ 10:32 am

I saw senator Paul specifically state in front of congress and the world that he signed on to the letter to spite the president. He said he did not sign on to try and deter iran from developing nuclear weapons. He said he signed on to the letter sent to iran threatening to change the terms of any agreement in order to send a message to the president. I will ask again. Are these guys just unbelievably stupid, doing as stupid would do, or are they actual traitors to our country?

#16 Comment By Mary Myers On March 12, 2015 @ 9:03 pm

Rand Paul has effectively shot himself in the foot. He no longer has any chance of becoming President as he has alienated his father’s base of supporters, and the Neocons were never going to let him get to home plate ever. He has shown himself to be a mugwump.

#17 Comment By At Your Service On March 13, 2015 @ 7:57 am

No, the letter was no mistake.

It was the coda to Netanyahu’s speech. Perhaps even the execution of the order implicit in that speech. Or perhaps it should be put this way: it was intended to accomplish Netanyahu’s wish.

#18 Comment By redfish On March 13, 2015 @ 6:09 pm

The open letter was a bit petty, I’d agree with that. But it also doesn’t represent much of a big deal. If our foreign policy aims collapse just because of a letter, there’s something wrong with our foreign policy.

If Iran’s commitment to a deal waivers because of a letter, or a speech in front of Congress, then it could waiver because of anything. Those are all just words, and nothing more. That shouldn’t give anyone much hope that Iran will keep their end of any agreement.

Ultimately, I find all of the hand-wringing over these maneuvers to be silly. And it would be one thing if it was just silly, but it steers into ridiculous rhetoric about Republicans being traitors, with the idea that they should be prosecuted under the Logan Act. So pettiness is met with pettiness, with an extra ounce of threats of prosecution.

Noah, you nicely showed some of the hypocrisy of Sen. Cotton. But I’m also left wondering about your stance on the fact that, as you’ve pointed out, Congress has actually abdicated its role in foreign policy over the years. Is it a good thing, in the end, that executive-only agreements are treated as binding? Or does that raise any Constitutional worries?

#19 Comment By Winston On March 14, 2015 @ 3:02 am

Who needs enemies when there is the GOP! Enemies couldn’t do what GOP is doing. Happily gutting the country one way or the other.

#20 Comment By cdugga On March 15, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

Stupid is as stupid does. What traitors do is treacherous. So far we don’t know what other incentives were of the republicans beyond the motive to scuttle iran negotiations by proclaiming they would try and go back on any agreement reached. With the possible exception of ron paul who said specifically he simply wanted to spite the presidents initiatives. That is treachery, unless you can make the arguement that the agreement itself was treachery. Go for it. As in all and any issue we might name, the best thing for democrats is for republicans to move beyond general rhetoric and talk about the specific issues in question. Now many of the signers of the letter trying to scuttle nuclear negotiations with iran have taken the tact of stupidity, either to hide their treachery or simply to admit to the lesser of two evils. Like, I’m not a traitor. I’m not stupid but I did a stupid thing. But the math is pretty simple when you start adding up stupid things; it equals being smart. Right? The right again. Yeah, not in this reality. But I was surprised to hear that sending a letter to sabotage nuclear negotiations with iran was a positive political move for the signers. I guess the tough guys are still tough right up until their friends or family are offed for no real gain in an avoidable conflict. Who can say for sure? Maybe he did die for freedom instead of for the MIC and the representatives they sponsor. Who knows for sure? Where the money and power goes, and the reasoning for that, is rhetorical after all.

#21 Comment By Canof Sand On March 18, 2015 @ 12:13 am

Note how no one addresses the fact I pointed out that you are objectively wrong and even Kerry admits it.

Typical.

AGAIN:
John Kerry: Tom Cotton’s right, we’re not negotiating a legally binding deal with Iran
[4]

Now stop calling yourselves “conservative”, liars.