And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. — Isaiah 11:6
Well, not exactly a child led them, but Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, at 37, is the youngest member of the Senate, an institution he joined barely two months ago.
Paying no heed to the old adage that freshmen senators should be seen but not heard, Cotton charged into the national limelight with an ill-conceived open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, condescendingly warning them that a “mere executive agreement” reached with President Obama curtailing Iran’s nuclear program could be revoked by the next president, who comes into office in less than two years.
Cotton has been called — by Salon magazine — “Sarah Palin with a Harvard degree,” which may explain his brashness in butting into the delicate nuclear negotiations with Iran. But what explains the willingness of 46 of his Republican colleagues — such seasoned veterans as Senator John McCain and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — to sign a letter aimed at sabotaging the diplomacy of the United States?
McCain tried to dismiss his signature by claiming inattention: “I saw the letter, I saw that it looked reasonable to me and I signed it, that’s all. I sign lots of letters.” Does that mean he didn’t read the letter in full? Did he not understand it? Or was he trying to save face after the fact? No matter which explanation, it’s not complimentary to the old maverick, and it indicates he may be overstaying his time in the Senate.
Other Republicans tried to dismiss the letter as a “cheeky” attempt at inserting humor into the nuclear talks (an inherently unfunny subject). Other Republicans, some of whom signed but are having second thoughts, worry that the letter injects partisanship into the talks and sets up the Republicans to be the fall guys if the talks fail. “I just didn’t feel that it was appropriate or productive at this point,” said Arizona’s Jeff Flake, one of the few Senate Republicans who refused to sign the letter. “These are tough enough negotiations as it stands, and introducing this kind of letter, I didn’t think would be helpful.”
Flake is right about one thing: The 47 signatories certainly were not trying to be “helpful.” Their goal was to sabotage those talks, a goal that reflects the utter contempt and disrespect the Republican Party has for the incumbent president. The open letter to Iran does not differ from the party’s strategy of thwarting, or trying to thwart, every Obama initiative, a strategy the GOP has employed for six years now.
But the disrespect Republicans are showing the president has intensified in the newly installed Congress, in part, because the GOP’s landslide victory in the recent midterms has given the party majorities in both houses of Congress and, in part, because Obama is in the last two years of his presidency. The near unanimous Republican opposition to all things Obama on domestic policy has now spilled over into foreign affairs, long regarded as a presidential preserve. Though Republicans in the past showed little respect for the president, now they act as if he simply isn’t there. How else to explain Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without first informing the president? How else to explain this week’s open letter to Iran?
Tom Cotton’s Iran letter is not the first instance of Congress trying to meddle in foreign affairs. Members of both parties have long tried to influence executive actions in international matters. Republicans complained loudly when ten Democrats wrote a “Dear Comandante” letter to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra in 1984 and when Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Damascus to meet Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Though ill-conceived, those forays into congressional diplomacy were minor blips compared to the letter to Iran because the 47 signers of the letter intended to undercut a sitting president engaged in sensitive negotiations aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Their goal was to sabotage his foreign policy. Signing the letter may or may not have been illegal, but it represented an unprecedented act of political disrespect both for a sitting president and the constitutional separation of powers. The signers were also wrong about the effect of a “mere executive agreement.” While technically it is true that the next president could void an executive agreement signed by his predecessor, it is hard to imagine that happening, so long as Iran honored the terms of an agreement. Not only would overturning such an agreement demonstrate bad faith on the part of the United States, making it more difficult for future presidents to engage in diplomacy, it would also anger the other five participants in the current talks with Iran.
The Republican attempt to undermine the president already has backfired. It has forced many Democrats — whose support is necessary to make veto-proof a bill to impose tougher sanctions on Iran — to oppose the legislation and side with their president. It may also set up Republicans for blame if an Iran deal is not reached. “It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran,” Obama said after the letter’s release. “It’s an unusual coalition.”
It’s also a huge political blunder, one occasioned by senatorial Republicans allowing a child, or in this case, a freshman, to lead them.