March 10, 2015
Today's Washington Post reported that 47 Republican senators wrote a letter to Iran concerning the Obama administration's ongoing negotiations with that country. Basically, it served notice to Iran that any deal that is reached over Iran's nuclear development program would only be an "executive agreement" and therefore subject to cancellation by a future president. Coming on the heels of the recent awkward appearance by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint session of Congress, it reaffirmed that idea that nothing less than total compliance will be acceptable to the Senate. That's not a realistic goal, so in essence it's saying "no deal," period.
So, of course this set the stage for another volley of polemical tirades between pro-Obama and anti-Obama forces. Democratic leaders such as Vice President Joe Biden were shocked -- shocked! -- at the unseemly display of partisanship on a sensitive matter of national security. Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Zavad Zirif (educated in the U.S.) took the occasion to lecture Senate Republicans on international law and the U.S. Constitution. He called that letter a "propaganda ploy," which is rather ironic coming from a repressive theocratic regime. It is, most certainly, an upside-down world we are living in.
Some Democrats have suggested that the Republicans' letter was a violation of the Logan Act, which forbids U.S. citizens from interferring in American diplomacy. Ironically, some Republicans have made similar criticisms of Democrats in years past. For example, Rep. Nancy Pelosi met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2007, an act of freelance diplomacy that undercut the Bush administration. Now the shoe is on the other foot. As Michael Crowley wrote in politico.com, the GOP letter to Iran was the latest spat in a long-running feud between the parties over control of U.S. foreign policy. Its unusual nature merely reflects the current poisoned atmosphere in Washington, where the opposite ends of Pennsylvania [Avenue] hold each other in mutual contempt.
Battles between the executive and legislative branches over foreign policy date back to the Vietnam War, when we learned the sorrowful consequences of pursuing international goals without a solid domestic consensus. The War Powers Resolution (1973) was one such battle, and the Reagan administration's support of the "Contra" rebels fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was another. This much is certain: The power of the presidency has expanded far beyond what the framers of the U.S. Constitution had intended, and our continued status as a republic (as opposed to an empire) rests to a large extent on whether Congress will be able to rein in presidents. Say what you will about Sen. Tom Cotton [(R-AR)], the author of the letter, or the other Senate Republicans who signed that letter, but they are duly elected government officials -- just as President Obama is.
Presidents need a certain amount of leeway in the conduct of diplomacy, and the GOP letter is a blunt (and in my view, unwarranted) attempt to deny the president any such leeway. It may make the world more dangerous by killing any chance at a peaceful resolution of the basic dispute. As for the administration's claim that the President has the authority to reach executive agreements without approval from Congress, that is certainly true of smaller-scale agreements of a technical nature, such as carrying out weapons inspection. But it would be rash and imprudent to make an agreement of such great importance as the prospective deal with Iran without substantial input from Congress. That is why, viewed from a different perspective, is quite appropriate to make a bold assertion of the Senate's constitutional duty to give "advice and consent" to the president in making treaties. Are those who are skeptical of Iran's intentions supposed to just stand idly aside? No. I just wish they had expressed their views in a more proper, respectful manner.
In a real sense, President Obama invited this showdown by his habit of making major policy decisions entirely on his own, such as the suspended enforcement of certain immigration laws which he announced in November. But even if the senators had a valid concern and had no ulterior political motivatations, the letter was still needlessly embarrassing and potentially disruptive to negotiations -- for whatever they may be worth. Instead of declaring their position to the American people, to whom they are accountable, they stooped to the President's level in a childish, tit-for-tat game of one-upsmanship. That is not the way to do block executive branch usurpations. As Joe Scarborough lamented on MS-NBC this morning, "Really? Really?" It's not that he was opposed to what the Republicans were doing, but was simply exasperated by the tactless way they did it. Almost everything Obama does these days is aimed at enraging his opponents, and the Republicans need to refrain from taking his bait. In sum, the letter to Iran was regrettable -- and quite understandable.
As background for this blog piece, I referred to a book from my graduate school days, The President, the Congress, and Foreign Policy, ed. by Edmund S. Muskie, Kenneth Rush, and Kenneth W. Thompson (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986).
For the record, I have updated the Foreign leaders and U.N. Security Council pages.