“…the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms. As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades. – Letter from 47 Republican senators to Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Can’t We Just Agree on This…
Amid the persistent partisan rancor dominating Washington, D.C. you might think that the one issue that would lend itself to a modicum of bipartisanship would be an effort to prevent Iran from developing the ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon.
In the hands of a regime that since 1979 has proclaimed the United States as its great enemy, a nuclear weapon would represent an existential threat not only to the U.S, but also to the continually troubled Middle East. Indeed, Iranian nuclear capability is a threat to the entire world.
In response to this very real threat, the Obama Administration has attempted to do what former President George H.W. Bush did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 – build an international coalition to confront the threat. In dealing with the Iranian nuclear menace the United States has joined forces with France, Great Britain, Germany, China and Russia, but the U.S. has clearly taken the lead in the talks.
While Republican critics of Obama’s foreign policy often criticize the president for “leading from behind,” in the case of Iran the U.S. is clearly out front pushing hard for a diplomatic agreement. That fact alone, given GOP criticism of Obama’s approach to foreign policy, might argue for Republican cooperation and encouragement that could foster true bipartisanship. In fact, and in a different political world, the circumstances of the coalition led by the U.S. to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon seems like the epitome of a foreign policy issue where Republicans and Democrats might actually cheer each other on in expectation of an outcome that would be good for the country, the Middle East and the world.
Politics is always about fighting over the details, but stopping Iran from having nuclear weapons seems like a fundamental strategic goal that every American could embrace. But not these days. Just when it seems that American politics can’t make me any more discouraged about the future of the country, Arkansas sends Tom Cotton to the United States Senate. Cotton is the architect of the now infamous letter to the Iranian ayatollahs that has both undercut Obama’s international diplomacy, while revealing the depths of blind partisanship in Washington.
Senate Republicans are so dismissive of Obama’s presidency that they are willing to risk blowing up the nuclear talks with Iran and happy to completely jettison any hint of bipartisanship in foreign policy. Ironically the GOP experts also set themselves up to take the blame if the Iranian talks do come apart. At the same time, Republicans offer no alternative to the approach Obama has taken (well, John McCain once joked about his desire to “bomb, bomb Iran,” as if that were a real option).
The GOP’s approach also centers on dismantling a long tradition of bipartisanship regarding Israel and giving encouragement to the current Israeli prime minister – who happens to be fighting for his political life – to take his own unilateral action against Iran. That is a prescription for World War III, but that seems to pale in the face of the Republican compulsion to de-legitimize Obama and show the world just how small and petty our politics have become.
When Country Came Before Party…
The U.S. Senate is a place of great history and great tradition. Some of that history is worth remembering in the wake of the truly unprecedented “open letter” 47 Republican senators directed this week to the leadership of Iran. That letter, of course, has now become controversial and may well mark a new low point in failure of responsibility and leadership by the senators who signed it.
In January 1945, with the end of the Second World War in sight, Franklin Roosevelt was about to set off for an historic meeting at Yalta with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill. The critical subject at that conference was the formation of a post-war organization that might have a chance to prevent another world conflict. Then as now, many senators in both parties distrusted Roosevelt believing him too secretive in his dealings with other world leaders and too dismissive of Congress. An influential Republican Senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg, had long been a skeptic of FDR’s approach to foreign policy, but the rapidly evolving world order – a powerful Soviet state, a diminished British Empire, a hugely powerful United States – caused the once-isolationism minded Vandenberg to reassess his thinking. (Something, need I note, that few politicians dare do these days.)
The result of that re-thinking was one of the greatest speeches in the history of the Senate. Famously declaring that, “politics stops at the water’s edge,” Vandenberg re-defined, literally in a single speech, the shape of American foreign policy in the post-war world. Pledging support to the Democratic president, the Republican Vandenberg said: “We cannot drift to victory…We must have maximum united effort on all fronts…and we must deserve, we must deserve the continued united effort of our own people…politics must stop at the water’s edge.”
Vandenberg, who desired the presidency as much in his day as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz or Rand Paul do now, nevertheless worked closely with Harry Truman to flesh out the creation of the United Nations and implement the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from the ravages of war. It was a remarkable example of bipartisan leadership from a man who, had he wanted to do so, might have created political havoc both domestically and internationally.
Vandenberg was reportedly surprised by the impact of his “water’s edge” speech, modestly saying: “I felt that things were drifting. . . Somebody had to say something, and I felt it could be more effectively said by a member of the opposition.”
Imagine a Republican senator saying such a thing today.
Arthur Vandenberg, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, knew that an American president must have the ability to deal directly and decisively with foreign leaders. The president – any president – is also entitled to a to be free of the constant undertow of partisan politics on the home front, particularly when the stakes are so very high. Vandenberg also knew that the United States Senate has a particular ability to shape the national debate about foreign policy thanks to the Constitution’s requirement that the Senate “advise and consent” on treaties and the appointment of ambassadors.
Imagine for a moment the Senate behaving differently than it does. Imagine for a moment a Senate populated by senators like Arthur Vandenberg. In such a Senate Republican leaders might go to the White House regularly for private and candid talks with the president where they might well express profound concerns about a potential agreement with Iran. They might even make speeches on the Senate floor about what kind of agreement they expect. The Foreign Relations Committee might conduct detailed, bipartisan hearings on the challenges and opportunities contained in an agreement. The Committee might invite former secretaries of state or national security advisors from both parties to testify. (By the way, at least two former national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft, a Republican, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democrat, support the diplomatic effort underway.)
The once impressive Foreign Relations Committee, haunted by the ghosts of great senators like J. William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield, Frank Church and Howard Baker who once served there, might hear presentations from and ask questions of academics and foreign policy experts from the United States and our foreign partners. They might actually undertake a bipartisan effort to understand the nature and timing of a threat from Iran.
Instead, driven by the hyper-partisan needs and far right wing tilt of the coming presidential campaign, Republicans are making the question of “who can be tougher on Iran” their foreign policy litmus test. The inability to embrace even a hint of bipartisanship seems rooted in the stunning belief that Obama (not to mention former Senator and now Secretary of State John Kerry) would literally sell out the country – and Israel – in a potential deal with Iran.
The debate over the now infamous Republican letter to Iran will no doubt continue and time will tell whether it provides Iran an out to abandon any agreement, but at least one aspect of the letter – how it came to be and who created it – deserves consideration in the context of the history of the United States Senate.
Since When Does a Rookie Get to Call This Play...
The letter was the brainchild of the Senate’s youngest member, a senator who ranks 93rd in seniority, a senator who took office less than three months ago. Freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who is frequently described as a strong advocate for greater defense spending and a darling of the party’s farthest right wing.
In a different Senate operating under adult supervision the young Gentleman from Arkansas would have been told to file his letter in a recycle bin, but in the Senate we have the Cotton letter was signed by a number of Republican senators with substantial seniority that should have known better, senators like Idaho’s Mike Crapo and Arizona’s McCain. After noting that McCain now says the letter “wasn’t exactly the best way to do that,” the New York Times editorialized that the Cotton missive “was an attempt to scare the Iranians from making a deal that would limit their nuclear program for at least a decade by issuing a warning that the next president could simply reverse any agreement. It was a blatant, dangerous effort to undercut the president on a grave national security issue by communicating directly with a foreign government.”
After researching the history, the Senate historian says there is no precedent for such a letter. And Alan Hendrikson, who teaches at the prestigious Fletcher School of International Relations, agrees that the Cotton letter “undercuts” the whole idea of American foreign policy. “Neither the Senate nor the House has sought to interfere with actual conduct of negotiations by writing an open letter to the leadership of a country with which the U.S. is negotiating,” Henrikson told McClatchy News.
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank joked that perhaps Cotton, who denied that his epistle was one-of-a-kind, would undercover “an open letter from American legislators written to King George III in 1783 warning him that the efforts of Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams might be undone with the stroke of a quill.” But, of course, no such letter was ever written, just as Cotton’s should not have been.
Give credit to Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who did not sign the letter and may yet help his party lead rather than posture. Against all evidence about what the United States Senate has become, perhaps Corker can channel Arthur Vandenberg, a staunch Republican and a frequent critic of Democratic presidents, who could still put his country above his party.