Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

Senate Republicans’ letter to Iran was a foolish act of pique that’s likely to backfire. But the president’s shortsighted dissing of Congress has weakened his hand for executive action.


It is yesterday’s news that 47 Republican senators signed a letter darkly warning Iran’s Supreme Leader that they will be political forces to be reckoned with long after President Barack Obama leaves office. But the spin is wrong: All but seven GOP members in the Senate ought not be described as “GOP hard-liners” — when 85 percent of Republicans in the Senate do something, they are the main body, not just the hard edge of it.

That said, I think it was a mistake for the Republicans to send the letter. It looks bad for Congress to undercut the president during the negotiations with Tehran; moreover, it is unlikely to appeal to Americans who are fed up with Washington and want their elected representatives to work together and solve the country’s problems. Republicans in the Senate would argue that Obama is on the brink of a deal with Iran that could be disastrous to America’s national security, and that by skirting Congress’s advise-and-consent role, he left them no recourse.

But the senators underestimate their own strength in preventing the president from carrying out an executive agreement — they can simply use the next legislative vehicle to remove his waiver authority and the sanctions on Iran remain in place. And if a bad deal is struck, there will likely be winnable Democrats to make the sanctions veto-proof.

Before yesterday’s letter, Republicans seemed to have substantial Democratic support for legislation requiring the president to submit any agreement with Iran to the Senate for its consent; having bipartisan acknowledgement that Obama’s executive actions infringed on the prerogatives of Congress would have been a very powerful statement. But by firing off a personal note to Iran’s Majlis, Republicans in the Senate may have sacrificed that prospect. When Republicans took control of Congress in November, their strategy was supposed to make President Obama irrelevant by doing well what Congress does well. The leadership committed itself to an agenda addressing the concerns of middle-class America. Yet they have allowed Obama to bait them into a sharp-edged discussion of foreign policy instead.

Whatever Senate Republicans’ mistakes, and angry as the president might be about legislators undercutting him during the endgame of a difficult negotiation, he might want to consider his complicity in the matter: Had he not flouted the requirement for the president to submit international agreements to the Senate for its consent to ratification, Congress would get its chance once the deal had been completed. Obama should reflect on that, particularly since going forward he’s bluffing with a weak hand. If his point was to prove he’s still relevant, he’s succeeded. If his point was to negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, he’s provoked a mutiny that will make the policy difficult to carry out.

The U.S. Congress is famously truculent on international obligations generally, and trade negotiations specifically, often refusing its consent to ratification, or muddying the waters with treaty-changing amendments. President Woodrow Wilson was denied his treaties bringing World War I to an end. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II was withdrawn from Senate consideration when it became clear it lacked the votes to gain consent. The McKinley administration’s 1900 treaty with Great Britain over the Panama Canal was so altered by amendments to eviscerate its meaning that Britain rejected the deal.

But savvy U.S. presidents use the threat of congressional abandonment in order to negotiate better terms for the United States. In the midst of the 1845 crisis with Britain over the boundary of the Oregon territory (which then encompassed Washington state), President James K. Polk requested (and thunderously received) the Senate’s consent to abrogate the existing treaty with Britain, showing the breadth of public support for his side of the argument. President Barack Obama took the exact opposite approach, and by doing so — even before the 47 Republicans wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei — he’d already telegraphed his domestic political weakness to Iran.


Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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