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The Do-Something Congress

Forget the <i>Sturm und Drang</i> over the Iran deal. We’re actually witnessing a rare moment of pragmatic bipartisanship in Congress.

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In the hours after President Barack Obama announced that the long-running negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program had finally reached an agreement, the Republican attacks landed fast and heavy. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Bloomberg that the deal is “akin to declaring war on Sunni Arabs and Israel.” Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin said it “will be remembered as one of America’s worst diplomatic failures.” Jeb Bush lambasted it as “dangerous, deeply flawed, and short-sighted.” And Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) attacked it on MSNBC’s Morning Joe as “a terrible, dangerous mistake” and promised, “The American people are going to repudiate this deal, and I believe Congress will kill the deal.”

The hard-fought agreement, which Congress now has 60 days to review and vote on, seems poised to be a death battle in the long-running war between President Obama and his Republican nemeses over the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

Despite a sharp-elbowed China, a flailing counterterrorism strategy, and a Middle East in meltdown, one of the most potent challenges to Obama’s foreign policy has originated right in Washington. Pervasive, entrenched, and ideologically grounded partisan polarization has stymied the projection of U.S. power around the world, delayed and thwarted critical decisions, weakened international alliances, and undercut the deterrent effect of U.S. military might. The abandonment of the ideal of a bipartisan foreign policy, the defeat and retirement of centrist Republicans, and the escalation of gamesmanship in the 24-hour online news cycle have diminished the will to compromise and led many policymakers to prioritize political point-scoring at the expense of American global leadership.

Only this time, despite the bombast and chagrin, there’s reason to believe that things may play out differently, and that after the early rhetoric clears, Republicans and Democrats will join forces to pass the deal by a comfortable margin.

The last few months have witnessed a tentative, barely perceptible pattern of uncharacteristic compromise across the aisle on a series of high-profile issues of international concern. The granting of Trade Promotion Authority in June, the swift approval of this year’s $612 billion National Defense Authorization Act by a veto-proof majority in the U.S. Senate, passage of the USA Freedom Act mandating reforms to dragnet surveillance, and legislation governing congressional review of a potential nuclear deal with Iran all represent bipartisan breakthroughs on high-profile, contentious issues where common ground was previously elusive. The biggest test of whether the emerging bipartisanship can hold will come in the next 60 days as Congress reviews the president’s nuclear agreement, the most controversial foreign-policy initiative of his presidency.

Rather than reflecting a philosophical shift on either side, the surprising emergence of solid bipartisan majorities on a series of contested issues reflect a calculation that is quietly taking hold and may persist through the presidential election on Nov. 8, 2016. Neither Democrats nor Republicans know who will control the White House and Congress 18 months hence. After six and a half years of obstructing the president, Republicans now need to prepare for the possibility that they may be in the Oval Office come January 2017. Overlaying their own personal viewpoints and constituency concerns, Democratic lawmakers face a three-fold imperative: vindicating President Obama’s tenure as a success, enabling Hillary Clinton (or any other Democratic heir), and imposing checks on a potential President Bush, Walker, or Trump.

While some Democrats may trust President Obama not to misuse terabyte upon terabyte of Americans’ metadata, for example, the prospect of putting that information in the hands of a Walker administration feels different. While the period ahead will be one of pitched partisanship on hot and crowded campaign buses, it may also open a window for bipartisan cooperation in Washington motivated by policymakers seeking to safeguard their interests amid an uncertain election outcome.

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Few disagree with the idea of a bipartisan foreign policy in theory. The godfather of bipartisanship in international affairs, former Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.), famously intoned that “we must stop politics at the water’s edge,” so that “America speaks with maximum authority against those who would divide and conquer us and the free world.” While continuing to champion robust debate, Vandenberg sidelined his own staunch isolationism to join President Harry Truman in thwarting the rise of a remilitarized Germany and Japan, enacting the Marshall Plan, and creating NATO — some of the most enduring foreign-policy accomplishments of the 20th century.

Vandenberg’s vision proved enduring but also elusive. While commentators often harken back to bipartisan unity in facing down the Soviet Union under Reagan, rolling back Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, stopping the Bosnian genocide, or waging war in Afghanistan after 9/11, the historical record reveals that considerable divisions and a strong doses of partisan invective accompanied all those efforts. Moreover, the flow of such examples has slowed to a trickle in recent years, and the consequences of the drought have been visible and damaging. The successive debt ceiling, government shutdown, and sequestration battles during the Obama administration distracted the White House from foreign-policy matters, spooked global markets, and bred worldwide doubts about whether the United States was capable of governing itself, never mind leading the rest of the world.

More recent examples of partisanship undermining policy interests are many. The recriminations over the attack of the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi in 2012 have demonstrated that, rather than inspiring fortitude, terrorist attacks can now sow domestic divisions. Obama’s failed attempt to muster congressional support to defend his red line and punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons with airstrikes in the summer of 2013 marked a low for U.S. credibility in the Middle East. Two years later, Republican commentators tend to blame Obama’s failure to go through with the strikes for almost every bad thing that has befallen the region since. Five years of congressional dithering over reforms negotiated by the Obama administration for the International Monetary Fund led China to circumvent the fund, uniting regional neighbors and key American allies in a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that excludes the United States.

The Senate’s own historians have judged the congressional leadership’s direct dealings with foreign leaders and public repudiation of the president’s foreign policy unprecedented. House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appear before a joint session of Congress in March to assail a potential nuclear deal with Iran put the world on notice that the White House might not be able to deliver American support for a deal. Days later, 47 Republican senators signed an open letter to Iranian leaders proclaiming that they were unlikely to honor any agreement signed by Obama after the end of his term.

And then, tenuously, the tenor shifted. Not knowing who will win the next election, Washington is now operating under a political equivalent of the “veil of ignorance” that philosopher John Rawls first described in his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. Rawls posited that the fairest way to set up rules in a society would be through debate in which participants would not know where they would be situated in a future system governed by the rules they were establishing. For example, if a society was to set precepts governing slavery, those deliberating the terms would do so without knowing whether they would end up slaves or masters in the order they created. Rawls’s notion was that regulations established from behind such a veil of ignorance about rule-makers’ own individual future roles and status would be fairer than those set by stakeholders aiming to preserve positions and prerogatives that they know they will enjoy by virtue of their station.

The uncertain outcome of the 2016 election has cast a natural veil of ignorance over the Washington policymaking process: Lawmakers and executive branch officials don’t know who will be implementing (or trying to reverse) the decisions they make. As Rawls’s predicted, that uncertainty incentivizes a more balanced and, dare I say, enlightened approach to decision-making as policymakers strive to protect their interests under a range of scenarios.

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Recent examples illustrate the point. When Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) introduced surveillance reform to the House of Representatives in early 2014 in the wake of the Snowden revelations, civil libertarians were pitted against intelligence hawks. Clashes doomed the law, culminating in a narrow November 2014 defeat of a cloture motion that led some to declare the reform effort dead. Yet in the space of just over a month this spring, the sharp differences receded and a compromise bill, the USA Freedom Act, passed 338 to 88 in the House and 67 to 32 in the Senate. The turnabout was in large part the work of Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, who led a pitched battle to prevent reauthorization of expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, forcing defenders of government surveillance to join in passing a new law — lest intelligence powers be even more severely curtailed. The Kentucky senator’s gambit exposed the deep splits on surveillance among the wide Republican presidential field. Both securocrats and privacy advocates were reminded that a future administration could leave them worse off, raising incentives for the libertarians to secure some reforms now and for the hawks to get something passed and thereby dampen the momentum for more sweeping curbs down the road.

Weeks later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) performed an act of legislative jujitsu that saw him moving in lockstep with Obama to defeat Democratic objections and extend sweeping “fast-track” authority to the president, paving the way for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement as well as future trade accords. As recently as last fall, Tea Party Republicans in the House were judged a formidable hurdle to passage of Trade Promotion Authority — which they dubbed “Obamatrade.” But as the months wore on, the calculus changed. With the Trans-Pacific Partnership slated for completion during the last year of Obama’s final term, the deal’s economic benefits — estimated to add $77 billion to U.S. real incomes by 2025 — will redound to his successor. Moreover, the fast-track authority approved in June will last for six years, allowing Obama’s successor to initiate and, potentially, pass a succession of trade agreements with far-diminished congressional interference. An issue that had been seen through the lens of whether Republicans were willing to afford a reviled president with expanded authority and a legacy-making win looked different from the perspective of a potential Republican win just 16 months hence.

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The biggest test of the potential for bipartisanship by policymakers, operating behind the veil of ignorance on the post-2016 balance of power, will come on Iran. With an agreement now at hand, 15 months ahead of the presidential election, lawmakers must evaluate a three-dimensional matrix of scenarios that will depend on whether the deal is approved, how the Iranians behave, and who controls the White House and Congress. Congressional Republicans have long premised their vociferous resistance to a deal in part on their doubts over whether Obama would hang tough in the talks and would rigorously enforce an agreement’s terms. As Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate in 2013, on Iran “some American neoconservatives … well, let’s face it, they trust Netanyahu more than they trust Obama.” When administration negotiators reached an interim deal in late 2013, Boehner said it should be greeted with “healthy skepticism and hard questions, not just of the Iranians, but of ourselves.”

Yet successive delays in concluding the talks now mean that much of the work of the deal’s implementation and monitoring will fall to the next administration. This realization began to dawn in the spring, when suddenly the pitched partisanship surrounding the negotiations began to lift. Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act by an overwhelming majority of 98 to 1 in the Senate and 400 to 25 in the House. Writing in Foreign Policy, Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) noted that the measure, which provides that only Congress has the authority to waive sanctions and thus implement a prospective nuclear deal, marked a resurgence of bipartisanship and was aimed to ensure that any deal would endure beyond the current administration.

The prospect of an election and new administration will boost prospects for congressional approval of the deal for several reasons, meaning that the long delays in reaching agreement may end up paying off for Obama. First off, with the deal forming a firm pillar of the president’s legacy, the political stakes for him in ensuring its survival would be high. Just as critics have accused Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry of pursuing a deal at all costs, they would question Obama’s objectivity as the implementer-in-chief, worrying that the administration’s investment in the deal would deter its diplomats and nuclear experts from calling a violation if they saw one. Obama’s detractors are likely to have more faith in either Hillary Clinton or most of the current Republican nominees to hold firm in enforcing its terms and be willing to blow the whistle if the Iranians break the rules.

Second, as Republicans contemplate the return of one of their own to the White House after eight years of exile, the benefits of a deal become more obvious. Fast-forwarding a year or two, the next president will face one of several scenarios. If the deal is approved and operative, there will be either full and absolute Iranian compliance, open and obvious violation, or — most likely — something in between: Whereby Iran mostly complies, equivocates at the edges, and keeps International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors on their toes providing reports that are largely reassuring but also leave some questions unanswered. Assuming Iranian defiance is obvious, the United States will stand a good chance of mobilizing the five other powers behind the deal, enjoying international backing for the “snapback” of sanctions and a fighting shot at support for the use of military force to counter Iran on the grounds that all else has failed. If Iran equivocates, the president may find himself in a repeat of the rhythms of U.N. weapons inspections, reports, and resolutions in Iraq throughout the 1990s. While not a storyline anyone relishes, that cycle of evasions and intrusions parsed on the global stage is familiar, and would hamper and slow Iran’s ability to progress its nuclear aims.

With no deal in place, the next president’s dilemmas would be far worse. If the deal fails in Congress, Iran has made clear that its nuclear program will press forward at full tilt. The card of debilitating international sanctions and cyberattacks aimed to force Iran to the table will have been played out. The next president will also face a frustrated and angry international community, led by the five other powers — Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia — who will have spent years locked in nuclear talks only to see their efforts derailed by American legislators.

At that point, the only realistic option to halt Iran’s nuclear program will likely be military attacks that the five major negotiating powers, as well as many other nations, will almost assuredly oppose. Hailing from a party that will have killed the Iran deal as too weak, a new GOP president will be under immense pressure to act to counter the Iranian nuclear threat. The decision to proceed, the success of the operation, and the aftermath would define the next Republican presidency, just as the Iraq War defined the last. Faced with the choice between a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game with U.N. inspectors in Iran and the prospect of launching a war on Iran that is opposed by the United States’ closest allies and the world’s leading powers, it’s hard to imagine even hard-line Republican hawks wanting to force their next president’s hand so early on. While Obama’s political opponents might relish seeing him in that predicament, the scene looks different if the person in the Oval Office is their own.

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If Congress can summon broad agreement to support the president’s Iran deal, what looks now like a tentative trend toward bipartisanship will take firmer hold. If that happens, those who have spent the last seven years decrying the recent trend toward polarized dysfunction in U.S. foreign policy ought to spring into action to capitalize on the common ground before it dissipates. Bipartisan groups of distinguished former government officials and legislators have worked diligently to forge agreements on a host of topics including funding the diplomatic and development ends of U.S. global leadership, terrorism, torture, climate change, and fulfilling Washington’s obligations to international institutions. Especially on non-hot button issues, the election period may offer an opportunity to enlist the support of candidates for these specific moderate positions as well as for a broader rhetoric on the need to revive bipartisanship.

In recent years, congressional leaders have mounted pledge drives relating to taxes, reforming lobbying practices, and upholding the rights of Hispanic Americans. Supported by elder statesman and spearheaded by those in Congress who have international experience and insights, legislative leaders should draft and promulgate a pledge related to vigorously fulfilling America’s global leadership role. The pledge should include a vow not to politicize terrorist attacks, to bring national security nominees to a swift congressional vote, to adequately fund the diplomatic corps, and to support U.S. engagement in international institutions. Framed carefully, such a pledge could be a powerful avowal of Congress’s commitment to American leadership, helping to ensure that petty politics interfere less often with the exercise of U.S. influence globally.

The bipartisan foreign-policy strains being sounded in Washington’s election cycle are not those of a choir of angels summoned by a higher power. Rather, what manifests as bipartisanship is really enlightened partisanship: a rational calculation of the policy decisions that make best sense for the party’s own interests, taking into account that politics is a long game and power dynamics may soon shift. In recalling Arthur Vandenberg’s impassioned calls for unity, it’s also worth remembering that, though he would die of cancer before the ambition was fulfilled, he was long considered a favorite son candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. The ill-consequences of untrammeled partisanship for U.S. foreign policy over the last seven years are hard to mistake, and the more than 20 candidates now vying for the presidency all have a stake in putting the worst impulses back into check.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of the Pen American Center and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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