On Tuesday, the House of Representatives is slated to vote on a resolution designed to tie the president's hands on Iran policy. The resolution, which is coming up under an expedited House procedure, was the centerpiece of AIPAC's recent conference. In fact, 13,000 AIPAC delegates were dispatched to Capitol Hill, on the last day of the conference, with instructions to tell the senators and representatives whom they met that supporting this resolution was #1 on AIPAC's election year agenda.
Accordingly, it is not particularly surprising that the resolution is being rushed to the House floor for a vote, nor that it is expected to pass with very little opposition. Those voting "no" on this one will pay a price in campaign contributions (the ones they won't receive) and, very likely, will be smeared as "anti-Israel." That is how it works.
Most of the language in H. Res.568 is unremarkable, the usual boilerplate (some of it factual) denouncing the Islamic Republic of Iran as a "state sponsor of terrorism" that is on the road to nuclear weapons capability.
The resolution's overarching message is that Iran must be deterred from developing weapons, a position the White House (and our allies share). That is why the sanctions regime is in place and also why negotiations with Iran have resumed (the next session is May 23).
But the resolution does not stop with urging the president to use his authority to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. If it did, the resolution would be uncontroversial .
But there is also this: The House "urges the President to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and opposition to any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat."
Think about that.
The resolution, which almost surely will pass on Tuesday, is telling the president that he may not "rely on containment" in response to "the Iranian nuclear threat."
Since the resolution, and U.S. policy itself defines Iranian possession of nuclear weapons as, ipso facto, a threat, Congress would be telling the president that any U.S. response to that threat other than war is unacceptable. In fact, it goes farther than that, not only ruling out containment of a nuclear armed Iran but also containment of an Iran that has a "nuclear weapons capability."
That means that the only acceptable response to a nuclear armed or nuclear capable Iran is not containment but its opposite: war.
Any doubt that this is the intention of the backers of this approach was removed back in March, when the Senate was considering new Iran sanctions. Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Bob Casey (D-PA) offered their own "no containment" language to the sanctions bill and the Senate moved to quickly to accept it.
However, amending a bill once it is already on the Senate floor requires unanimous consent and one, and only one, senator objected. Rand Paul (R-KY) said that he would oppose the containment clause unless a provision was added specifying that "nothing in the Act shall be construed as a declaration of war or an authorization of the use of force against Iran..."
That did it.
Neither the Democratic or Republican leadership would accept that (knowing that AIPAC wouldn't) and Paul's objection killed the bill, for the time being. In other words, the purpose of "no containment" language is precisely to make war virtually automatic. Because Paul's provision would thwart that goal, it was unacceptable.
So now it's the House's turn.
On the substance, the "no containment" idea is absurd and reckless.
Imagine if President Kennedy had been told by the Congress back in 1962 that if the Soviet Union placed missiles in Cuba, he would have no choice but to attack Cuba or the USSR. If it had, it is likely none of us would be around today.
Presidents need latitude to make decisions affecting matters of national security and, until now, all presidents have been afforded it, as provided for in the United States Constitution. But, in the case of Iran, the cheerleaders for war are trying to change the rules. They are doing that because they understand that after almost a decade of war, the last thing Americans want is another one.
No president is going to ask Congress to declare war, or even to authorize it. Making war against Iran automatic would eliminate that problem. (That is precisely Sen. Paul's objection; he believes that backing into war is unconstitutional. He recalls the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964 which led to ten years of war in Vietnam and 50,000 American dead without a declaration of war or even a specific authorization for war).
So why would the House vote for a resolution like this? The main reason is AIPAC. It may be the only lobby pushing for war with Iran but it also, by far, the most powerful foreign policy lobby and also the one that sees to it that those who play ball with it are rewarded and those who don't are punished.
The other reason is that the resolution is non-binding. Voting for it is good politics but does not affect policy.
Believing that is a mistake. An overwhelming vote for "no containment" may not tie the president's hands legally, but it does go a long way to tying his hands politically. After all, Congress will be expressing its clear (bipartisan) intent. A president cannot easily ignore that.
Moreover, the lobby is unlikely to stop with a non-binding resolution. Once the House and Senate have passed that, the lobby will look for an opportunity to make it binding. The goal is to take the president's discretion away from him because this president is unlikely to choose war when there are other options available.
It is those options that the lobby is determined to block. It remains hell-bent for war.