Even to those who could care less about politics and the root causes of the squabbling and dysfunction in Congress can recognize the failed foresight and potential for fallout involving 47 Republican senators and their celebrated letter to Iranian officials warning them of the perils of making a nuclear deal with President Obama. Everyone else may soon recognize this as well.
What surprises me, beyond how unfamiliar some senators obviously are with the Iranian government, is the intellect of some of those who went ahead and signed this letter. Among them: Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn and Sen. John McCain, the latter a former prisoner of war during the Vietnam War who presumably knows the folly of meddling with presidential privilege in conducting foreign policy.
Both men strike me as pragmatic, so their decision to endorse this letter suddenly raises baffling questions concerning their judgment rather than their authority in such a gesture. Do they regret signing it, given that even neo-conservative news media such as the New York Daily News (which branded the 47 Republican senators "traitors") and reliably right-wing Fox News commentator Greta Van Susteren expressed deep reservations? I bet so.
In the end, though, that's something they'll have to reconcile with themselves. After all, they're human and all of us make mistakes, so let's not focus on that aspect because this issue is really so much bigger than even senators who should know better.
Of far greater concern is the fact this letter to Iran challenged the authority of the U.S. executive branch as described in the U.S. Constitution, a remarkable mistake for senators presuming to have foreign policy know-how. Further, the letter defies the Logan Act, which expressly forbids unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign powers that have simmering disputes with the United States.
Do the senators fall into this category of citizens? The question hinges on the purpose of even having a president in our democracy. Could it be that the senators based their decision to negotiate with foreign adversaries on earlier historical events just after the American Revolution when it was not exactly uncommon for individual Americans to negotiate directly with representatives of foreign governments? Who knows?
But let's assume senators have the right to negotiate with foreign countries. It's still likely no foreign government would and could trust any entity -- be it the Senate, House or private citizens -- claiming to speak on behalf of the U.S. government. In that sense, some otherwise accomplished U.S. senators displayed remarkable ignorance or disrespect for how things run in the United States -- or are supposed to run.
The dilemma becomes clearer when you study American history. Kathleen DuVal, co-editor of Interpreting a Continent: Voices from Colonial America and associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, says similar incidents have occurred. Example: In 1786 Congressman James White of North Carolina told Spanish diplomatic envoy Diego de Gardoqui that if the United States failed to guarantee Americans access to the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans, far western North Carolina might simply declare independence and swear allegiance to Spain.
Today it's an embarrassing chapter in North Carolina history. It also explains why the Founding Fathers in the Constitution made the office of the presidency command central in American foreign policy. In many ways, that has contributed to the rising power of the United States through the 20th century. DuVal says a group of 21st-century senators taking advantage of negotiations with Iran only returns us to an earlier age of disharmony and weakness, one the Founders certainly decried.
The senator behind the letter is Tom Cotton, an Iraq war veteran whom many within the GOP see as a rising star. If so, how could he have failed to understand the basic importance of protocol, order and a unified front? I could not agree more with retired U.S. Army Gen. Paul Eaton, a veteran of action in Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia, when he stated that the senator's behavior suggests a serious breakdown in discipline. As a veteran, Cotton should know better. His action demonstrates a lack of judgment as well as political inexperience. He has a lot to learn.
What this episode highlights is that our system is broken if and when a freshman senator can undermine U.S. foreign policy.
It would have been helpful, for instance, to Sen. Cotton to understand the Iranian constitution before sending the letter. If this was a serious gesture, the letter should have been addressed directly to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, because he has final say in all matters of state. The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, can negotiate treaties, but he has no power to conclude a final agreement without Khamenei's approval.
Further, any agreement would have to be presented to the Council of Guardians, made up of 12 jurists, six of them appointed by the supreme leader. Among its duties is to ensure that all legislation passed by the Majlis is consistent with Islamic law. Cotton's partisan ploy is an embarrassing diplomatic blunder from a nation that presumes to lecture others on the niceties of U.S. government.
Even our closest allies are shaking their heads at this faux pas. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had harsh words for the 47 senators during his remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington this month. His concern over this bumbling is that the issue (nuclear negotiations) is not only an American concern but also a global one.
But then our closest allies in Europe and elsewhere are increasingly alarmed by the political tensions that continue to destroy our democracy. It seems we have lost all sense of what it's like to disagree, yet maintain civility and respect for this institution meticulously forged by the Framers. We instead resort to cheap political stunts that not only undermine our credibility on the global stage but tear at the fabric of our society.
Could this latest stunt hint at leadership struggles within the GOP? It's an ironic possibility when you consider that the GOP takeover of both houses in January was supposed to herald an era of strong and responsible Republican leadership, not division. Sadly, the dispatching of a letter by 47 Republican senators to Iranian officials in defiance of negotiations by the White House is anything but responsible.