I am often asked why I remain a member of the Republican Party. My stock answer has become that it's the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower and I would like very much to return it to similar hands and am working, however infinitesimally well, to do so. Leaving the party would accomplish nothing in that regard. I also contend that there are still sane and sober people -- in the minority to be sure -- remaining in my party.
Over the past few days, I have been publicly corroborated by seven such people: Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lamar Alexander and Robert Corker of Tennessee, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Dan Coats of Indiana, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. These seven senators refused to join the other 47 Republican members of the Senate who made fools of themselves by seeking blatantly to undermine the president's and the P5+1's (China, Russia, Britain, and France, plus Germany) diplomacy to stop Iran's acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In Jon Meacham's new one-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, the political climate of the early 1800s is vividly rehearsed and reminds one quite a bit of today's climate. From time to time, the bitterness and vitriol is so acute that it is logical to conclude that our fledgling republic hung by a spider's web's single strand over the abyss. At the bottom of that abyss were England and France, ready to consume whatever fell their way. Each moment of the most intense peril, however, found a few in each 'faction' (the equivalent of 'party' today) who would cross the line, so to speak, and join in preserving America. We would not be here today as "the Empire of Liberty," as Jefferson called us, if it were not for such people.
It is unquestionable that by wise Constitutional interpretation and by protocol and precedent, the Congress has a role to play in U.S. foreign policy. Its most prominent role is the power of the purse and with that power alone, as it did with the Agreed Framework with North Korea in the 1990s and early 2000s, Congress can derail any arrangement our president and the P5+1 conclude with Iran. It can simply refuse to provide money for implementation. But it has another powerful restraint as well: it can refuse to lift sanctions permanently, thus completely derailing the arrangement. The Congress does, however, have a point about its appropriate additional role.
The president has been far too adamant about not including the Congress early-on in fashioning his approach to and potential arrangement with Tehran. This refusal seems to be a characteristic of this president; he does not like dealing with personalities who might bring different points of view than his to the table -- this despite his very public protestations to the contrary. Given the sort of actions by the 47 senators who did sign the letter in question, one can hardly blame him for harboring such a predisposition. But that is what we elect presidents to do, the tough jobs. He should have included Congress early-on, just as Harry Truman should have included the Congress from the very start of his "police action" in Korea in 1950.
The dye has been cast, however, and cannot be uncast. What should determine future action now is what is best for our republic. That is clearly diplomacy and not war, the latter being what some in my political party really desire.
If an arrangement with Iran can be concluded along the lines of what is being projected -- and that is definitely not clear at the moment -- then all parties should accede to it and give it a chance to work. Congress can derail it at any moment by withholding appropriations or, ultimately, refusing to lift sanctions. Many in my party fear that an arrangement will in fact work, that the more it appears to do so, the further they will be from their real goal -- war -- and thus their aim will have been thwarted. But these are a minority. Many of the 47 who did sign the letter followed the herd instinct to hurt the president and now wish they had not.
I commend, however, most strongly the seven. They refused to join the herd no matter the thundering of its hooves. They give me hope, not only in my political party but in the prospects for our republic's making it through these extremely troubling and politically polarized times, which Thomas Jefferson would recognize immediately.
Lawrence Wilkerson is visiting professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary. He served 31 years in the US Army and was chief of staff from 2002-2005 to secretary of state Colin Powell.