Republicans' Botched Iran Letter

Congress needs to be more active in making foreign policy, but the senators' letter to Iran showed Republicans' inability to offer any alternative.

Leading the way: Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Liberals today are outraged about an open letter 47 Republican senators have written to Iran (as reported by Bloomberg View’s Josh Rogin). It is intended to spike negotiations over Iranian nuclear ambitions by claiming the agreement won’t last beyond Barack Obama’s presidency.

I’m of two minds on this one.

On the one hand, this is the wrong way for senators to get involved.  

On the other hand, I remain a strong supporter of congressional efforts at making policy, including foreign policy. This is pretty much what Obama was asking for when he decided to move ahead on reaching a non-treaty treaty with Iran (that is, a treaty in the form of an executive agreement that wouldn’t require congressional involvement). Obama tried to cut Congress out of the loop; they fought back.

The senators' "open letter" would have been appropriate if it had taken a different form -- say, as a less provocatively worded op-ed that laid out the legal limitations of such executive agreements as part of an argument for an alternative approach. 

Instead, their approach simply illustrates their lack of an alternative plan (other than a full-scale invasion of Iran, which follows from the logic of their position but which most opponents of Obama’s strategy aren’t willing to support flat out). If anything, their letter (as international relations scholar Dan Drezner points out) is more likely to give the Iranian government further reason to reach a deal with Obama -- a deal that would then be hard for the next president to back away from, even if he or she wouldn’t have agreed to it in the first place.

The truth is Senate Republicans don’t have the votes to change Obama’s course. Even if they did, their inflammatory approach doesn't speak well for their ability to govern on this issue. Separated institutions sharing powers means Congress has the opportunity, and a responsibility, to involve itself in foreign policy, no matter what the president wants. Let's hope these Republicans opt for a more conservative method going forward.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.