The pages of my local newspaper, and the feeds of social network sites in which I am participating, are full of denunciations of the March 9 Letter from Senate Republicans to the Leaders of Iran. Supporters of the Obama administration are labeling this communication as treason, implying that for our elected representatives to publicly state that they will not in the future vote to support our president’s actions, should the matter come up for a Congressional vote, is somehow unconstitutional. This stance, it seems to me, displays a basic misunderstanding of representative government and the checks and balances implicit in its structure.
The letter does bring into focus a very real problem with American government, not only with respect to foreign policy but also with respect to domestic policies that have long-term consequences. In a nutshell, that problem is that overt political control of the White House and Congress changes over a short time period, and not in synchrony. When the control of the White House, or the Senate, or the House of Representatives shifts from one party to another, there is always the potential that the successors will eviscerate whatever programs or policies the predecessor instituted.
The United States is now entering the seventh year of an eight-year Democratic presidency. At the outset, in 2008, a public thoroughly disenchanted with the previous Republican administration returned substantial Democratic majorities to both the Senate and the House. As of November 2014, both the Senate and the House now have Republican majorities, creating gridlock: the president cannot count on the backing of Congress to support any foreign policy negotiation into which he or his secretary of state may enter, and Congress has reason to fear a presidential veto, as recently occurred with the Keystone pipeline authorization bill.
Moreover, both sides are increasingly focused on winning votes in the 2016 presidential election, which means that considerations of popularity, in that 20-month time frame, will override prudent long-term management of the affairs of America and the world. Some legislators on both sides of the political spectrum appear to be proposing pieces of legislation that they know will fail, and which could not be implemented as written, in order to paint the opposition as ogres in the eyes of their naïve constituents.
The truth is, the Obama administration may have the authority under the United Sates Constitution to negotiate a diplomatic settlement with Iran, but the authority to commit the United States to honoring the terms of the negotiation rests with a Congress that is not only philosophically opposed to specific policies, but also has a vested interest in seeing those policies fail. If, as many political prognosticators predict, our next president is to be a Republican, then most of the responsibility for ongoing relations between the United States and Iran will fall to an administration almost entirely based on repudiating the previous administration’s policies. This happened in 1976 and 2008, and to some extent happens any time that American politics become as polarized as they now are.
This has happened in the past, with disastrous consequences for the people on the ground. A few years ago I wrote a short biography of Henry Kissinger for the series Great Lives in History: Notorious Lives, and this involved assessing his role as an alleged war criminal in Cambodia and East Timor. The United States’ role in replacing a regime favorable to the Viet Cong with one favorable to us, and conducting massive bombing attacks on North Vietnamese bases and supply lines within the borders of supposedly “neutral” Cambodia, is unquestioned. What gets left out of most accounts is the Democratic-controlled Congress passing a law, after the regime change and bombing, barring the use of US ground troops in Cambodia. This lack of support set the stage for Pol Pot and the horrors of his regime.
I find it hard to credit that the present leadership of Iran would not have been aware of the inherent instability of American foreign policy, had not a group of Republican senators written to them about it. The outrage on the part of the press in the United States strikes me more as outrage that someone did so in a way that the American public would find difficult to ignore, thereby demolishing any political capital President Obama might have garnered by wringing his hands over Iranian intransigence at accepting a fraudulent olive branch.
“Tom ‘Benedict Arnold’ Cotton” by DonkeyHotey. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.