The recent “Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” that was signed by 47 Republican senators led by Arkansas freshman Sen. Tom Cotton reminds us why the GOP can’t seem to get away from its reputation as having an uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of political victory.
The letter explains to the Islamofascist apocalyptic ayatollahs how “our constitutional system” regarding the ratification of international treaties works, essentially saying “We senators will be here long after President Obama is gone and therefore you should not expect any deal you make now to be respected by the United States for longer than the 22 months remaining in Obama’s term.”
To make sure the message was received, Senator Cotton sent a Farsi translation to Iran’s “supreme leader,” president, and foreign affairs minister, who is negotiating details of an agreement with Secretary of State John Kerry.
(Strangely, in a Senate hearing on Wednesday, John Kerry said that “we are not negotiating a, quote, legally binding plan,” to which Senator Cotton responded via Twitter, “So then what exactly are you doing?” and “Important question: if deal with Iran isn’t legally binding, then what’s to keep Iran from breaking said deal and developing a bomb?”)
From domestic politics to international affairs to the constitutional functioning of our government, the number of negative political consequences from one short letter makes it all the more noteworthy that only seven Republican senators were wise enough not to sign it: Lamar Alexander (TN), Dan Coats (IN), Thad Cochran (MS), Susan Collins (ME), Bob Corker (TN), Jeff Flake (AZ), and Lisa Murkowski (AK). (More on this motley crew later.)
Domestically, the letter allows Barack Obama to lob hyperbolic but stinging pronouncements such as that Republicans are “mak[ing] common cause with the hardliners in Iran.” While the accusation is obviously false — at least to the small segment of Americans who are relatively well-informed on this administration’s disastrous approach to Middle East policy — the letter has let President Obama off the ropes after he was rightfully (albeit politely) criticized by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week and while polling shows the president’s approach to Iran is held with great skepticism by American voters. Cotton’s letter was the political equivalent of a football fumble, putting the GOP on defense in a high-stakes political game where they’ve rarely had the ball.
To the extent that Americans believe Republican senators are interfering with the prerogative of executive branch to negotiate — but not ratify — treaties, Sen. Cotton’s letter plays into the caricature of Republicans as a party incapable of governing (including allowing for this amusing left-wing skewering of “47 GOP Senators”). For a party that rightly complains about Obama’s frequent unconstitutional behavior and disrespect for separation of powers, the letter reminds me of a child ignoring his parents’ warning that when squabbling with other school kids he “shouldn’t sink to their level.”
The premise of the letter is also fundamentally flawed — not in its expression of how treaty ratification works or the likely lack of durability of any forthcoming agreement between the U.S. and Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear program, but in its assumption that the dictatorship of Iran is unaware of these things or even cares about them. As one expert on Iran put it, the Iranian regime has “a pretty sophisticated understanding” of American politics.
What possible impact could the letter have on Barack Obama’s approach to negotiating with Iran? Most likely, it will push him even further toward a “deal at any price” mindset to prove that meddlesome Republicans can’t stop His will. In the unlikely event that he is looking for a way out of a deal, Obama can suggest that the letter changed the Iranians’ negotiating position and blame the lack of an agreement on the GOP.
Yes, many — including this columnist — would applaud a collapse in these sham talks, but political benefit to the GOP — an admittedly less important issue — would be limited (in large part due to the media’s fealty to Obama and their parroting of his talking points). So while there is one improbable scenario in which the letter might increase the chances of talks collapsing, it is more likely to ensure they continue, and in either case there is a political loss for Republicans (except perhaps among their own base). Sounds like a bad bet to me.
Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, the announcement of possible corruption charges against Senator Robert Menendez — one of the leading Democratic critics of President Obama’s Iran policy (and his Cuba policy) — was timed in a way that stinks of retaliation by an administration that has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to use the power of government to silence opposition. An investigation into Menendez has been rumored for more than two years and prosecutors have a plausible argument that the timing of the announcement is related to statute of limitations concerns.
But even the Washington Post notes that the case against Menendez “could be tough to make.” Bringing corruption charges against Menendez at this time, as Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) put it, “raises the suggestion to other Democrats that if you dare part from the Obama White House, that criminal prosecutions will be used potentially as a political weapon against you as well.”
Between the lessening of Menendez’s influence and the crowbar that the letter offers Obama to pry Democrats away from Republicans on this issue, chances have substantially diminished that sixty votes can now be found in the U.S. Senate for an Iran sanctions bill that, as the Hill noted, “appeared to have a veto-proof majority earlier this year.”
Passing that bill rather than writing a letter to the Islamic Republic’s leaders would have been the more effective — and the more constitutional — way for Republicans to oppose Obama’s Chamberlain-like appeasement of Iran’s analogue to the murderous and anti-Semitic evil that was Nazism.
In the longer term, just as Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy began the unconscionable practice of “Borking” that we are still living with today, Senate meddling during the negotiation phase of a treaty, even a comprehensively objectionable one, may leave international allies and opponents alike wondering whether future treaty discussions with the U.S. are worth the effort and whether they should demand more concessions to offset the perceived additional risk of hyper-partisan rancor being injected into ratification debates.
All this notwithstanding, the harm of Tom Cotton’s letter can be — and, given the willingness of the left to say absolutely anything with a straight face, is being — overstated. For example, socialist Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) says that Republicans “want a war in Iran.”
Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) went too far by calling Senator Cotton “Tehran Tom.” Asked to elaborate for this article, an unapologetic Rep. Polis responded: “I think ‘Tehran Tom’ caught on because it conveys how betrayed many Americans feel by his actions of communicating directly with our enemy, not his perfectly valid and defensible viewpoint.
“There is simply no excuse for a senator to communicate in Farsi directly with Ayatollah Khamenei, a known sponsor of terrorism, while our president is engaged in critical negotiations to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. It is perfectly fair game to support or oppose such an agreement, or argue that it goes too far or not far enough, but it is a bridge too far to subvert our president and engage in direct communications with an enemy power during the most intense period of negotiations.”
While I do not share Rep. Polis’s view that “many Americans” are even aware of this inside-the-Beltway brouhaha nor his implication that successful negotiations with Iran are possible (the definition of success including ensuring Iran’s compliance with an agreement that ends any further progress toward their acquiring a nuclear weapon), his fundamental point is correct.
And, in the greatest overstatement of all, analyst Mehdi Khalaji suggests that the letter increases the chances that the replacement for current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is rumored to be suffering from Stage 4 prostate cancer (couldn’t happen to a nicer guy), will be “more of a hard-liner” than Khamenei is. Beyond the fact that such a creature is nearly unimaginable, the idea that a single American letter that contained no new information would be of significant impact in Iranian domestic politics is laughable. (Again, this is not to say that Iran’s mullahs or even a cynically opportunistic American politician won’t use the letter for their own propaganda purposes.)
A conservative friend suggests that President Obama needs “a constitutional reminder,” that Republicans are “forever being trashed for running from any confrontations with their opponents,” and that any deal Obama is likely to sign with Iran will be so harmful that “it is incumbent on Republicans to resist this growing madness.” There is merit to each of these arguments but not enough to overcome the self-destructive futility of Senator Cotton’s letter.
I admit that the list of Republicans who refused to sign on with Cotton — some of the least conservative GOP senators (including two, Cochran and Murkowski, who arguably should not even be in the Senate) — has me wondering whether I am making a mistake in opposing the letter.
But despite that fact, despite the likelihood that President Obama will agree to almost any deal Iran offers no matter the risk it poses to the U.S., Israel, or civilization itself, and despite the temptation to oppose this administration’s denigration of Republicans at every turn, Senator Cotton’s “open letter” to the leaders of Iran was a mistake in every important aspect.
Tom Cotton is a credible and passionate supporter of Israel and opponent of Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon; he is a credit to the GOP. His freshman enthusiasm is understandable and laudable but many of the 46 other Republicans who signed his letter should have taken a deep breath and warned the well-intended young veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan (and Harvard Law School) that he was playing directly into the hands of America’s enemies, both foreign and domestic.
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