The letter from 47 Republican senators sent to the government of Iran is an unprecedented slap in the face of a sitting President. There is nothing to compare this to. Drafted by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who just came into office, the letter is surprising in that it was able to garner nearly half the Senate, including a number of experienced Senators who should know better, such as John McCain, Mitch McConnell and Orrin Hatch.
In the past, the House has withdrawn funds for Presidential initiatives, like Ronald Reagan’s funding of the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. Congress pulled the funding, although Reagan’s aides continued to fund the Contras with ingenious efforts such as illegally selling arms to Iran. Another example is when Congress pulled the funding when Richard Nixon extended the Vietnam War into Cambodia.
In 1999, the Senate rejected an international nuclear test ban treaty signed and negotiated by Bill Clinton. The Senate followed that up by expressing their disapproval of Clinton’s bombing campaign in Kosovo amidst the war and disentegration of Yugoslavia. The Senate’s refusal to follow the President’s lead in foreign policy is not unusual. The most prominent example being the Senate rejection of the Treaty of Versailles in 1920.
Congress has often investigated Presidential actions in foreign policy. Iran-Contra is also an example of that. More recently, Congress investigated the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” program in Mexico.
However, these are examples involving the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution. The House controls funding so it may pull the purse strings any time that it desires. The Senate must ratify treaties before they can become legal so their vote on the nuclear test ban treaty or even Clinton’s actions in Kosovo are well within their duties.
Even though the President is given great latitude as Commander-in-Chief, it is Congress that has the power to declare war. That lead to the creation of the War Powers Act, primarily in response to Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia in violation of Congress’ approval.
From time-to-time, members of Congress have gone on fact-finding trips to foreign countries. Sometimes, those visits have garnered the ire of Presidents. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Syria and meet with President Bashar al-Assad in 2007. She was heavily criticized for that. In 1987, then House Speaker Jim Wright met with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. At the time, the Nicaraguan government and the Contra opposition were in negotiations. Wright had a private meeting with Reagan afterwards that is not reported to have been pleasant.
There are big differences between these visits and the letter signed by 47 members of the Senate. Pelosi’s visit was followed by three Republicans who also meet with Assad. Pelosi also claims not to have deviated from Bush’s foreign policy in her meeting. In Wright’s case, he had been active in the Nicaraguan situation for some time, including signing onto Reagan initiatives. The Contras also welcomed Wright to meet with Ortega. Again, there did not appear to be a significant deviation from Wright’s actions and the Reagan administration’s stated policy.
The letter of 47 is a different story. It casts a totally different line in negotiations, treats the President with contempt and seriously undermines one of the most important foreign policy challenges facing Barack Obama.
For 47 senators to write a letter to a foreign government warning them that the negotiations are meaningless unless it is something that the Senate will ratify is unheard of. This is a near majority of the Senate that is interjecting itself into negotiations between the President and a foreign government. Negotiations with foreign governments are primarily a Presidential responsibility, not a Congressional one. To deviate from this well-accepted notion requires careful thought and cautious action.
There is a reason for this. It is nearly impossible for 435 Congressmembers to speak in one voice to a foreign government and negotiate the fine details of something as complicated as the Iranian nuclear negotiations that Obama and our allies are doing now. This is like a business and a union negotiating on a wage deal only to have another business or union pull up a chair and claim they are now part of the negotiations. What these 47 Republican Senators have done is commit one of the biggest political and diplomatic blunders of recent times.
These senators informed the Iranians that unless the Senate ratifies an agreement, then the next President can shift course and ignore any agreement made between the U.S. and Iran while Obama is President. The Iranians are going to look at this and wonder why they want to make any deal with a nation that they don’t trust anyway. What incentive do they have to negotiate when the deal may be reversed once it is ratified?
While overstepping their boundaries, these senators have also created a scenario where they will be blamed for any failed negotiations. If the Obama administration finds that it can’t make a deal with the Iranians, then all it needs to do is point a finger at these 47 senators. They will become a convenient scapegoat.
Unfortunately, this is more than a matter of political scapegoats. The only harm in that case is to the political fortunes of the Republican Party. The larger issue of containing Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons is under serious jeopardy. At this critical juncture, it risks being a complete failure.