There was a time in the not-so-distant past of the nation’s history when matters of foreign policy were deemed beyond partisanship. Presidents were accorded the constitutional prerogatives to negotiate treaties and otherwise engage in diplomatic endeavors without fear of the kind of back-biting and game-playing that was all too common in domestic affairs.
The thinking then was that the United States needed to speak with one voice when dealing with foreign leaders and their governments. And it made sense (and still makes sense) for reasons far beyond image. Presidents have cabinet departments and agencies (State and the CIA to name but two) that are heavily populated with professional staffers who provide detailed intelligence and knowledgeable advice to the president (and not to Congress).
Thus, for anyone other than the President (or those acting at his behest) to issue statements of policy or to go so far as to issue formal communiques that contravene or usurp presidential prerogatives in matters of foreign policy was unheard of. Yes, resolutions that dealt with foreign policy issues could be debated in Congress, but those resolutions, if passed, were never binding on a president’s authority and were certainly never an attempt to diminish that authority and responsibility.
All of that tradition, along with much of the respect for the office of the presidency in our constitutional system, was cast to the winds last week by forty-seven Republican members of the Senate when they signed an open letter to the leaders of Iran informing those leaders, in essence, that any deal struck with them by President Obama wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on.
The letter came about suddenly, and it was signed, sealed, and delivered quickly. It had been drafted by a freshman Senator from Arkansas named Tom Cotton, who had been elected to the Senate in 2014 after a single term in the House of Representatives. Senator Cotton, at the age of 37, is the youngest senator. He is an Army veteran and a lawyer. He served in the Iraq War in 2006 and the war in Afghanistan in 2008. The letter he wrote to Iran’s leaders was not Mr. Cotton’s first foray into the crafting of such documents. In 2006, he wrote an open letter that was published in the New York Times in which he called for three journalists, including the Times’ then-editor, Bill Keller, to be imprisoned for espionage for revealing the details of the Bush administration’s program to monitor the financing of terrorists’ activities.
With those credentials, Mr. Cotton was apparently embraced by 46 of his colleagues in the Senate when he presented them with the letter to the leaders of Iran. The letter was sent and got major play in the U.S. media. It was thought to be the first such attempt by a large number of Senators (or members of Congress) to influence the foreign policy decisions of foreign leaders in their dealings with the United States. The letter warned that any nuclear deal struck by the Obama administration could be scrapped by a new president. Its purpose, presumably, was to deter Iran from entering into any such agreement.
Reaction to the letter was harsh. The New York Daily News, in a banner front page headline, called the signatories “Traitors,” which, while perhaps a tad hyperbolic, probably wasn’t far from the mark if the letter could be interpreted as an attempt to betray the country’s interests in keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. (Weren’t the Rosenbergs executed for nothing less in 1953?)
And, as might be expected, the letter was used by Iran’s leaders for propaganda purposes, thereby ignoring its presumed actual purpose. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, called the letter “a sign of a decline in political ethics and the destruction of the American establishment from within.” He went on to characterize the letter as a reflection of Washington’s decadence.
“All countries, according to international norms, remain faithful to their commitments even after their governments change, but the American senators are officially announcing that at the end of the term of their current government their commitments will be considered null and void,” he added. He concluded by expressing continuing support for the nuclear negotiations, thereby completely negating the impact the senators presumably hoped the letter would have.
Or was their motive perhaps entirely unrelated to any reaction by Iran? Let’s remember that this is the same party whose then minority leader (now majority leader) Mitch McConnell spoke in 2009 of doing everything it could to ensure that Barack Obama would be a one term president. What is it about this party that so detests seeing the opposition in positions of power? What brings about this level of disdain, with the result that the good of the country is subverted to the goal of making the other party look bad?
Is there any other way to interpret the Cotton letter? Sure, it flows from an ideological point of view that is clearly opposed to the president’s. But whatever happened to being the “loyal opposition”? Think about the renegade stunt pulled by the senators’ colleagues in the House of Representatives just a week before the Cotton letter was sent. In total defiance of the Obama administration’s efforts on Iran, the Speaker (John Boehner) invited Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu to address the House. It was yet another insult aimed directly at the President, and, as might be expected, Netanyahu again warned (as he has since 1996) that Iran is on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons (must be a pretty broad “verge”).
It would all be laughable if it weren’t so telling and so pathetic. These Republicans hate the man and his party far more than they oppose his policies. They vote against programs that they previously supported (a health care insurance mandate, a carbon tax), and they oppose initiatives that under a Republican president they would have whole-heartedly supported (economic stimulus bill, middle-class tax cuts). Some say the issue they have with Obama is his skin color. I think it actually goes deeper than that.
They just don’t want any Democrat in the White House.