Is Obama Sidelining Congress on Iran?

Actually, the president’s move to get U.N. backing on the Iran deal is straight out of the Bush-Baker playbook.

100973 05: (FILE PHOTO) Secretary of State James Baker talks with U.S. President George Bush at a press conference May 17, 1991 in Washington DC. (Photo by Diana Walker/Liaison Agency)
100973 05: (FILE PHOTO) Secretary of State James Baker talks with U.S. President George Bush at a press conference May 17, 1991 in Washington DC. (Photo by Diana Walker/Liaison Agency)

As President Barack Obama’s administration continues to make its case to Congress to rally support for the Iran nuclear deal, Capitol Hill is boiling mad that the president first chose to go to the U.N. Security Council for its endorsement. Congressional leaders have been howling that such a move was at best disrespectful of the spirit of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act and at worst, a direct assault on Congress’s constitutional powers.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, angrily asserted that the U.N.-first approach has “turned Iran from being a pariah to Congress being a pariah.” And the Wall Street Journal editorial page thundered that Obama “doesn’t have the authority to let the United Nations dictate to America’s elected representatives.” Secretary of State John Kerry will certainly hear more of these complaints when he testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Tuesday.

But is this move really out of line?

Beyond the fact that the U.N.’s actions don’t usurp any congressional authority — the international sanctions won’t be lifted until after the congressional review, and the U.N. cannot compel the United States to lift its own sanctions on Iran or prevent it from imposing new ones — critics are conveniently overlooking the history that shows such a strategy is hardly unusual. Indeed, it is right out of the hardball playbook of two esteemed Republican statesmen, George H.W. Bush and James Baker.

Twenty-five years ago, as Bush and Baker sought to build support for the use of force to kick Iraq out of Kuwait, they used this exact two-step process. Few may remember now, but the 1990 debate over whether the United States should go to war with Iraq was especially intense, with most leading Democrats wanting to give sanctions more time. As over 400,000 American troops deployed to the Persian Gulf, the views of many opponents of force were summed up by the protestors’ chant, “No blood for oil.”

To wage this political battle over confronting Saddam Hussein, Bush and Baker took an explicitly “outside-in” approach, seeking U.N. resolutions to build an international consensus that in turn would help build pressure domestically for congressional approval to use force. Writing in his 1995 memoir The Politics of Diplomacy, Baker recalled, “Our diplomatic offensive at the United Nations was a critical component in winning over a reluctant Congress.” (Full disclosure: I assisted Secretary Baker with the research for his book.)

Baker worked tirelessly to gain U.N. Security Council support, understanding that a U.N. vote authorizing the use of force would be a “compelling factor” in their case to Congress. “By voting against the President,” Baker wrote, “Congress not only would be turning its back on America’s traditional obligation to support U.N. Security Council resolutions for which it voted, but also would be spurning the will of the international community.”

In late November 1990, the United States succeeded in getting U.N. authorization to use “all necessary means” to force Saddam out of Kuwait. With the U.N. Security Council’s support in his pocket, Baker saw the vote as “an essential building block of our domestic strategy,” giving the administration the upper hand.

“Now we not only had the diplomatic authority for waging war,” Baker recalled in his memoir, “but also the political leverage to, in effect, shame the recalcitrants in Congress into doing the right thing.” Or as Bush’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, remembered, the Democrats, who were against the use of force, then found “themselves in a quandary: how could they oppose a president who was supported by a powerful international coalition?”

In the end, the tough pressure bolstered by the U.N.’s support worked, but only to an extent. Congress authorized the use of force in January 1991; however, only ten Democratic Senators voted for the resolution. Yet looking back, the orchestration of the first Gulf War is seen as a shining moment for American statecraft — when Bush and Baker marshaled their formidable political and diplomatic skills to forge an international coalition, build domestic support, and execute a successful military operation. Many of the Democrats who opposed the president (including then-Sen. Joe Biden) have admitted that it was a mistake.

Are there differences between what Bush sought a quarter-century ago and the support Obama is seeking today? Some critics claim that the 1990 U.N. resolution merely authorized action, while today’s U.N. resolution compels the United States to participate in lifting sanctions. But at the time, members of Congress did not take their decision lightly. Tom Foley, then-Democratic speaker of the House, described their choice as tantamount to a declaration of war and opposed the president. So in fact, the biggest difference between what Congress faces now and what it faced then is the opposite of what the critics suggest: As important as today’s Iran vote will be, the immediate fate of hundreds of thousands of American troops was, in considering the action the U.N. authorized in 1990, an even more consequential decision.

On any matter of war and peace, Congress must play a critical role, which is why one hopes its review of the Iran nuclear deal will be as thorough as it is substantive (so far, the jury is out on that). But it ignores history to claim that Obama is breaking with tradition — or worse, the Constitution — by asserting the strong international support behind the deal and stressing the negative consequences for America’s international standing that would flow from congressional rejection. As the example of Bush and Baker reminds us, the “outside-in” strategy has a long and celebrated bipartisan tradition.

Diana Walker/Liaison Agency

Derek Chollet served in the Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, his books include The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (co-written with James Goldgeier), and The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (co-edited with Samantha Power). A native Nebraskan, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his family. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government. Twitter: @derekchollet