Butting In and Screwing Up
Steve Hochstadt teaches at Illinois College and blogs for HNN.
Some Republican Senators published an open letter on March 9 to the Ayatollah Khamenei and his government in Iran, trying to influence Iranian behavior in negotiations with the US, Germany, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom about its nuclear program. At least that’s what they said they were doing.
It has happened before that people outside of a significant international negotiation have chimed in, trying to push their own agenda. It is not unprecedented in American history for a political party to advocate a foreign policy of its own, even when it does not have executive power. But for both to happen, for members of one Congressional party to throw doubt on the position of the President, while he and other world leaders are dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat, that’s unique.
As a declaration of their foreign policy, it is even more important than the Republican Congressional invitation to Israeli President Netanyahu. That invitation to speak on March 3 was a deliberate insult to our President, so nothing new in Republican treatment of Obama. But then Republicans only committed themselves to listen to Netanyahu. A week later they declared themselves.
“We will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen....”
Here is what this letter reveals about Republican foreign policy: it’s not serious.
The letter was written by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, the youngest and newest member of the Senate. He has no foreign policy experience, but he has clear views. In 2013, in his first term as Representative from Arkansas, Cotton offered an amendment to punish family members of people who violate U.S. sanctions against Iran. He said punishment would include “a spouse and any relative to the third degree, parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids.” He said further, “There would be no investigation. If the prime malefactor of the family is identified as on the list for sanctions, then everyone within their family would automatically come within the sanctions regime as well. It’d be very hard to demonstrate and investigate to conclusive proof.” No proof needed, just put the great grandchildren in jail.
During his Senate campaign in the fall, he warned, “Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism. They could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.” It turned out some conservative website had cooked up this idea with no evidence.
Just after he took the oath of office to become a Senator in January, Cotton told the Heritage Foundation on Jan. 15 that he wanted to kill the negotiations: “Certain voices call for congressional restraint urging Congress not to act now, lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table, undermining the fabled yet always absent moderates in Iran. But the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence -- a feature, not a bug.”
When presented with Cotton’s quite radical views about dealing with Iran, 46 other Republican senators signed on at lunch. There was no discussion. Senator John McCain explained that, “It was kind of a very rapid process. Everybody was looking forward to getting out of town because of the snowstorm. I think we probably should have had more discussion about it, given the blowback that there is.” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Republican from Tennessee, did not sign it. He said, “I immediately knew that it was not something that, for me anyway, in my particular role, was going to be constructive.” His analysis didn’t seem to matter to other Republicans.
So leading Republicans get behind a freshman Senator’s untutored an extremist foreign policy. Didn’t any of them have a better idea? Why not discuss the letter with Republican presidential candidates who are not in the Senate, before speculating on what one of them might do if elected? Would a future Republican President really disavow an international agreement of his Democratic predecessor, thus disdaining all fellow signatories, including our closest allies in Europe?
Who is the letter’s audience? It was never actually a letter – the Republicans sent nothing to Iran. They simply issued a press release in English. The last Republican President labeled Khamenei’s government the “Axis of Evil”, which Republicans have continued to treat as an outlaw.
Senator Cotton and his colleagues were addressing the American voting public. Republicans are thinking about how one of their number could become the next President. That’s especially true for three of the signatories: Senators Rand Paul (KY), Ted Cruz (TX) and Marco Rubio (FL) are all running for President.
Like other Republican efforts to repudiate anything that President Obama does, the letter does not go beyond short-term political calculation. The only hint we get about what Republicans would do about foreign policy if they had executive power is this: all they care about is temporary domestic political advantage.
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