Sunday, March 15, 2015

With Friends Like These.... The Tom Cotton Letter Saga

No wonder the GOP is unable to set the agenda in Washington DC. Not only is the party saddled with incompetent, timid leadership that doesn’t have the self-respect to get out of the way. The party is also saddled with a pundit class that lacks new ideas and, often, helps the opposition. A perfect illustration of how conservative pundits undermine Republicans is the reaction of luminaries like Charles Krauthammer and Michael Gerson to the now famous – some would say infamous – Tom Cotton letter to Iran.

Let’s begin with Mr. Krauthammer. He argues that it would have been better to issue an open letter addressed to Obama essentially stating the Republican case that the president should not cut Congress out of such consequential negotiations. In other words, issue a letter repeating the same arguments that have been falling on deaf presidential ears for weeks. What makes Krauthammer think such an open letter would make any difference to Obama? Open letters pack more punch that several television appearances, press releases? Open letters are more effective than a much publicized speech by an Israeli Prime Minister before Congress?

Krauthammer does not explain why his suggestion would be more effective than all the other means Republicans have used to communicate their unhappiness with Obama’s approach to the negotiations with Iran. However, Krauthammer’s statement was not for naught. It provided to the Obama friendly media a chance to run headlines like “Krauthammer: GOP Should Have Sent Letter To Obama Instead Of Iranians” thus pitting Republicans against their own pundit class. With friends like these…

Matt K. Lewis of The Daily Caller did not have a problem with the content of the Iran letter. But he too suggested it would have been better if the letter had been addressed to president Obama instead of the mullahs. Even one of the letter’s signatories, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, has expressed regret for not addressing the letter to the president. It makes one wonder why would anyone sign a letter that he can’t defend. But in the case of Senator Johnson his regret may be more attributable to the criticism coming from conservative pundits than a heartfelt change of mind.

Would addressing the letter to the president really have made a difference? It would have avoided the charge of treason. But then we would have been deprived of a hearty laugh. Equally laughable is the notion that liberal media outfits or pundits would view the Cotton letter favorably if only it was not addressed to a foreign government.

Who are they kidding? Had the GOP addressed the letter to the president the liberal media would still have complained. How dare Republicans lecture Obama, a constitutional lawyer by training, about the Constitution! Followed by accusations that the GOP Senators were being disrespectful and, of course, racist. Open letter would soon be deemed to be code for “black president”.

Not to be outdone, Michael Gerson proclaims he has identified the “true scandal” of the Iran letter. Mr. Gerson writes:
 “The true scandal of the Tom Cotton letter to Iranian leaders is the manner in which the Republican Senate apparently conducts its affairs. The document was crafted by a senator with two months of experience under his belt. It was signed by some members rushing off the Senate floor to catch airplanes, often with little close analysis. Many of the 47 signatories reasoned that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s endorsement was vetting enough. There was no caucus-wide debate about strategy; no consultation with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has studiously followed the nuclear talks (and who refused to sign). This was a foreign policy maneuver, in the middle of a high-stakes negotiation, with all the gravity and deliberation of a blog posting. In timing, tone and substance, it raises questions about the Republican majority’s capacity to govern.”
Capacity to govern is quickly becoming a euphemism for agreeing with whatever Obama and the Democrats desire. Anyway, according to Gerson the process used by Republicans to issue the letter is the scandal. Not its contents, the process.

Let’s indulge Mr. Gerson for a moment. Suppose that the GOP had followed the process he suggested. That is, lengthy deliberations, caucus-wide strategy session but in the end the same letter is released. Would that invalidate all the other points Mr. Gerson makes in his column? My guess is that he would say no which means that process being the “true scandal” is nonsense.

The article continues,
"If Republican senators want to make the point that an Iran deal requires a treaty, they should make that case to the American people, not to the Iranians." 
This statement backs up my assertion that issuing the same letter using a different process would have made no difference to Mr. Gerson. It also ignores the fact that Republicans have strenuously made their case to the American people regarding Iran.

More from the article,
 "Congress simply has no business conducting foreign policy with a foreign government, especially an adversarial one."
That ship sailed a long time ago. The claim by the Obama administration that Republicans had ventured into “unprecedented” territory was quickly exposed as a baseless talking point. As many have pointed out, Democrat congressional members have met, contacted and even negotiated with foreign leaders with the express intent to undermine the foreign policy of Republican presidents.

Moreover, a letter outlining our constitutional system hardly constitutes “conducting” foreign policy. In their letter, Senators did not make any offers or present conditions. There was no effort to meet or negotiate with Iran. The letter contained one simple message to the mullahs: without Congressional approval whatever agreement is negotiated will be worthless as soon as Obama leaves the White House. It was more a PSA (Public Service Announcement) than an attempt to conduct foreign policy.

Mr. Gerson's next objection to the Cotton letter is that it has undermined a bipartisan effort led by Senators Corker and Menendez to force Obama to come to Congress. Here is the true scandal of this piece: the idea that Democrats would ever embarrass Obama by going against him. When Majority Leader McConnell tried to bring up the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act for a vote earlier this month, he had to pull it after Democrats essentially backed the president’s veto threat. This was before the Cotton letter. Given that history, how can anyone believe that the Democrats would oppose Obama after a deal with Iran is struck? A more likely scenario is that once an agreement is reached it will be even harder for Democrats to support the bill.

Here is what will probably happen. The president will hold a press conference to personally announce that an historic agreement has been achieved. Immediately, the New York Times and Washington Post will herald the deal as the greatest achievement of the Obama foreign policy. More than that, it will be declared as the greatest American foreign policy achievement since the Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt. Against such a backdrop how can Democrats possibly vote to undermine an historic achievement? The bill won’t even make it to the Senate floor.

Last night, the White House sent a letter to Senate warning them not to take any action before an agreement is finalized. Basically, buttressing the scenario outlined above. The Obama administration knows that once a deal is struck, it will be able to apply a tremendous amount of pressure on Democrats to toe the president's line.

If Democrats were serious about demanding that Obama submit the agreement to the Senate they would have already had voted to do so. They would not wait until an agreement is announced. Gerson is correct in stating that Senator Reid will use the Cotton letter to blame Republicans for undermining the Corker/Menendez bill. But instead of providing cover for the Reid’s misdirection, he should be challenging it.

Gerson’s final point is that Cotton letter creates the impression that Senate Republicans want negotiations to fail and, thus, our negotiating partners will conclude that America is not serious about trying to find an agreement and bail on sanctions against Iran. Or, at the very least, make it very hard to maintain strong sanctions if negotiations fail.

This argument defies history. No Cotton letter has been issued regarding the Ukrainian crisis, yet our European friends have gone wobbly on sanctions. No Cotton letter at the time of the sanctions against Saddam and, again, those were constantly violated. History teaches us that sanctions tend to fall apart as time goes on. Whether or not countries sustain sanctions is driven by national interests or domestic politics and not whether a group of senators send a letter.

In a few weeks, the Cotton letter will be forgotten as DC moves on to the next outrage, the next overreaction. One thing will remain the same. A GOP Congressional leadership that is constantly outmaneuvered by their opposition and a conservative pundit class that often fires at its own team. With friends like these….