The letter recently sent by 47 Republican U.S. senators to the
Iranian chief of state warned him that any executive agreement
he reached with President Obama regarding the Iranian nuclear
program would expire with the end of Mr. Obama’s term
unless it was submitted to the U.S. senate for ratification and
subsequently approved by a two-thirds vote.
This letter has been denounced by Mr. Obama and his
Democratic supporters as interference with the presidential
prerogative to conduct foreign policy.
So who is right?
The U.S. constitution does say that the president of the United
States is to conduct foreign policy with the advice and consent
of the U.S. senate, particularly on the matter of treaties.
Seven GOP senators declined to sign the letter, and no
Republicans answered Democratic critics by citing then-Speaker
of the House (and Democrat) Nancy Pelosi’s visit to President
Assad in Syria in 2007 expressly against the wishes of
then-President George W. Bush who was negotiating with Syria.
Now-minority Leader Pelosi argues that the circumstances
were fundamentally different between 2007 and 2015, but although
there were differences, the fact remains that a congressional leader
of one political party ignored the wishes of the president (who was
from another political party) in 2007. Not only that, the U.S. house
of representatives has much more limited constitutional powers in
matters of foreign policy than does the senate. In 2015, the senate
letter (crafted by first-term Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas) was
signed by 47 members, many more than the 34 needed to block the
ratification of any treaty.
Nevertheless, the senate letter was very unusual, and it was
contrary to the practice of the traditional bipartisan foreign
polices of past decades.
President Obama has polarized the conduct of U.S. foreign policy
by publicly stating that he will take executive actions without the
advice and consent of the senate. This is not unprecedented (there
was also much polarization between the parties during the terms of
President George. W. Bush), but it is particularly unusual because it
involves a sudden change in long-standing foreign policy for
the Middle East, policy that has been observed by U.S.
presidents of both parties since World War II. Not only that,
his negotiations are in such contrast to the interests of one of
America’s staunchest allies, Israel, that the Israeli prime
minister was motivated to come to the U.S. and strongly make
the case that not only are current terms of negotiations
contrary to Israeli interests, but also contrary to the long-term
interests of the United States.
The interests of the United States are primary, but U.S. public
opinion overwhelmingly says that, in this case, U.S. interests
and Israeli interests are the same. The letter of the 47 U.S.
senators reflects that American public opinion.
Mr. Obama has repeatedly declared that he can unilaterally
make domestic policy without the consent of the Congress, and
he is currently attempting to do so. His motivation is simple ---
he can’t impose his will on a Congress whose majority
disagrees with him. But this is clearly not the intention of the
U.S. constitution which was created with three branches,
each acting as a check on the others.
Now expanding his unilateral principle to foreign policy as well,
Mr. Obama is entering further risky political territory. In time, the
U.S. supreme court will decide whether he is right or wrong,
but in the short term, it might be necessary for members of the
U.S. house and senate to make it clear they will not allow their
constitutional powers to be trampled on. Even more importantly,
perhaps, the Congress can insist that Mr. Obama convince the
public of his actions before taking them unilaterally in the waning
years of his presidency.
This was the real purpose of the letter to Iran by the 47 senators.
It took the leadership of a freshman senator, Mr. Cotton, to think
past old niceties (niceties that Mr. Obama and Mrs. Pelosi had
themselves long abandoned) and make a clear statement to the
nation and the world.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.