The Looming Question

FAYETTEVILLE, AR - OCTOBER 31: U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Arkansas looks on during a tailgate party before the start of a Fayetteville High School football game on October 31, 2014 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  With less than a week to go before election day U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is holding a narrow lead over incumbent U.S. Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR). (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“This was a foreign policy maneuver, in the middle of a high-stakes negotiation, with all the gravity and deliberation of a blog posting. In timing, tone and substance, it raises questions about the Republican majority’s capacity to govern.”

Michael Gerson

Perhaps the critique has a bit more force coming from one of more conservative pedigree, such as Mr. Gerson. Still, though, one should also note that the Washington Post columnist still steps up to the bat for his side:

It is true that President Obama set this little drama in motion. Major arms-control treaties have traditionally involved advice and consent by the Senate. Obama is proposing to expand the practice of executive agreements to cover his prospective Iranian deal — effectively cutting senators out of the process. By renewing a long-standing balance-of-powers debate — in a way that highlights his propensity for power-grabbiness — Obama invited resistance.

The P5+1 negotiation has been at it since 2006. Fred Kaplan has already reminded:

“Reading [the letter], one can only wonder if these Republicans ever consult their staffs. As the Iranian leaders know, and as the Obama administration and the other P5+1 governments have made clear all along, the deal being negotiated is not a treaty, nor is it an agreement. Rather, it is a nonbinding international arrangement, to be signed (if it is signed) by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany, and Iran.Slate-logo-v

Similar agreements have been struck on a host of arms control measures over the years, including President George W. Bush’s Proliferation Security Initiative, President Gerald Ford’s Helsinki Final Act, and several hundred bilateral and multilateral measures, guidelines, and memoranda of understanding struck over the decades.

Just sayin’.

Nonetheless, Gerson’s analysis does point to familiar elements, and is certainly worth consideration.

The thing is that this is all pretty straightforward:

But the half-baked Cotton letter was a poor instrument to express concern. First, the bleedingly obvious: If Republican senators want to make the point that an Iran deal requires a treaty, they should make that case to the American people, not to the Iranians. Congress simply has no business conducting foreign policy with a foreign government, especially an adversarial one. Every Republican who pictures his or her feet up on the Resolute Desk should fear this precedent.The Washington Post

In this particular situation, paradoxically, the main result is not a weakened presidency but a weakened legislature. Corker has been toiling with the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), to craft legislation that would require Senate approval of an Iran deal. Before the Cotton letter, Corker was two votes away from a veto-proof, bipartisan majority. Now Obama and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are using the letter to argue that Republicans are engaged only in partisan games. Peeling even a few Democrats off the Corker/Menendez approach could prove decisive. If the Corker bill fails narrowly, Obama might have Cotton’s missive to thank.

A final objection to the Cotton letter concerns not institutional positioning but grand strategy. The alternative to a bad nuclear deal is not war; it is strong sanctions and covert actions to limit Iranian capacities until the regime falls (as it came close to doing in 2009) or demonstrates behavior change in a variety of areas. But this approach depends on the tightening of sanctions in cooperation with Europe, as well as Russia and China. And this effort can be held together only by the impression that the United States has negotiated with Iran in good faith. So negotiations are actually an important part of any attempt to isolate Iran. The key is where we draw our “red lines.”

Gerson also recalls a 1984 episode in which ten House Democrats wrote a letter to Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega, and a more recent episode involving Syria. The question here seems to be a strange sense of what precedent might exist for the action of the #GOP47, but even still, it might occur to wonder how any of that really matters. Is this somehow meant as a justification? We might hope not―nor would we indict Gerson, who explicitly states otherwise―but is this really a nit picked over the word “unprecedented”? Really? Such as it is, Wes Williams took a look at the 1984 episode, and Steve Benen considered the question of precedent, and along the way took a trip through memories of 2007, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to Syria.

This really is a strange situation, and in terms of the question of whether or not Republicans are fit to govern, the thing is that this is also just the latest example in a string of strange episodes. But the question remains as to why forty-six United States Senators decided to follow along after Tom Cotton. Burgess Everett of Politico reported that Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) explanation was, “I saw the letter, I saw that it looked reasonable to me and I signed it, that’s all. I sign lots of letters.” Over at Vox, Amanda Taub opines:

Okay, Senator, you “sign lots of letters.” But this letter was pretty clearly intended to undermine President Obama’s position in the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, by explicitly saying he would not be able to keep the promises he was making. This letter was addressed to the leadership of a hostile nation that is currently engaged in sensitive diplomatic negotiations with the United States, with the goal of undercutting the president of the United States in those negotiations ....Vox

.... In many ways, McCain’s decision to sign the letter is more disturbing if he thinks it was merely a minor act. It’s one thing to decide to actively and publicly undermine the president’s conduct of foreign affairs, not just in this treaty negotiation but potentially in all other future negotiations, with all other countries, who will now also be able to point to this same letter as evidence that the president cannot be trusted to negotiate agreements on behalf of the United States.

The question remains: You followed who down the whatnow? After all, it is one thing if Democrats or their supporters are questioning Republican fitness for governance; we have heard that chorus for years. But there is something … not quite ironic … but still seemingly significant―or perhaps simply mystical, you know?―about the idea that this occasion, this leap, this rabbit hole, this impact, and they were following a backbench freshman with a history of saying sketchy things? “Many of the 47 signatories,” Gerson explains, “reasoned that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s endorsement was vetting enough.”

Certainly, this sounds nearly reasonable, but even as such it only points back to the leadership. Not a single one of Sen. Cotton’s (R-AR) forty-six cohorts have an excuse. And that includes the leadership.

The question of Republican fitness to govern looms.

____________________

Image note: FAYETTEVILLE, AR – OCTOBER 31: U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Arkansas looks on during a tailgate party before the start of a Fayetteville High School football game on October 31, 2014 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. With less than a week to go before election day U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is holding a narrow lead over incumbent U.S. Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR). (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Gerson, Michael. “The true scandal of the GOP senators’ letter to Iran”. The Washington Post. 12 March 2015.

Kaplan, Fred. “Amateur Hour”. Slate. 10 March 2015.

Williams, Wes. “Did Democrats Send A Letter To An American Adversary, Undermining A President? Not Quite”. If You Only News. 11 March 2015.

Benen, Steve. “Was Cotton’s stunt unprecedented?”. msnbc. 11 March 2015.

Everett, Burgess. “Cotton storms the Senate”. Politico. 10 March 2015.

Taub, Amanda. “McCain’s breathtaking defense of signing the Iran letter: ‘I sign lots of letters'”. Vox. 13 March 2015.

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