On Monday, GOP senators released a copy of an extraordinary open letter addressed to “the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The senators warn that any deal reached without Congress’s consent could be tossed aside by the next administration and future congresses. Byron York argues that the Obama administration shouldn’t be surprised by the Senate’s contempt for his constitutional powers, given how much contempt Obama has shown for Congress’s constitutional powers. But Obama has shown far more contempt for congressional prerogatives than Congress has shown for his, even in this instance.
I see the propriety of the letter in a different light. Though addressed to Iran’s leaders, the letter was also a tacit warning to Obama. It would perhaps have been more artful — and certainly more routine — to address the letter to Obama, and let it be a tacit warning to Iran. That might not have grabbed as many headlines, but it would have been just as widely read by the regime’s leaders. It must be admitted that the letter has an unseemly aspect — not quite as unseemly as then–House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2007 visit to Syria, perhaps, but close. The spectacle of Congress seeking to undermine the president’s policy by appealing directly to foreign governments is embarrassing not just for Obama but for the whole country, clear evidence that something is going terribly wrong in our foreign-policy making. But who’s fault is that?
The threshold question is, What is the proper role of Congress with respect to the Iran negotiation? We can take as an authoritative expression of the Democratic position, the explanation of Democratic hero J. William Fulbright, who was chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. In The Arrogance of Power, he wrote that, on questions of foreign relations, the Senate ”has the responsibility to review the conduct of foreign policy by the President and his advisers, to render advice whether it is solicited or not, and to grant or withhold its consent to major acts of foreign policy. . . . As representatives of the people Senators have the duty, not merely the right, to render advice, not on the day-to-day conduct of foreign policy, but on its direction and philosophy as these are shaped by major decisions.”
So, on the basic question of whether Congress should be able to block any nuclear agreement with Iran, the Democratic party’s traditional position would be ”yes, of course,” and that position happens to be correct. What the letter actually says is indisputably true: “The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.” It was proper to remind the negotiators of that, even if the vehicle chosen wasn’t the most ideal for the purpose.
But there is a still larger point, which is that Obama has willfully created this whole spectacle of allies and now Congress balking at the Iran nuclear talks. He has created it by systematically failing to coordinate the Iran talks with them, as he should have given the vital interests that allies and Congress have in these negotiations, interests that will last much longer than Obama’s presidency.
Obama recently told The New Yorker, to the amazement of those who still believe there must be some limit to his vanity, “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now.” Apparently, he thinks he doesn’t need allies or Congress or public opinion either. Let’s assume he’s correct to think that he’s an amazing genius, and on the question of Iran, he’s right and everyone else is wrong. Even if that’s true, you can’t sustain a foreign policy that less than 40 percent of the American public support, that terrifies our allies, and that generates a possibly veto-proof majority of opposition in the Senate. And nobody should know that better than the president who, as senator in 2007, vociferously opposed the surge in Iraq, predicted that it would fail, and voted to de-fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What the entire episode demonstrates is the need for a new bipartisan foreign-policy consensus — something that doesn’t interest Obama in the least. With this historic implosion of our nation’s ability to conduct a rational and effective foreign policy that has public and international support, Congress has to step in.