Sen. Tom Cotton's big grandstanding play against President Obama may not produce the war with Iran or some other Muslim country that he seems to want, but it might give us the next worst thing, a nuclear-armed Iran.
Cotton wrote a letter to Iran's leaders and got 46 other Republican senators to sign it, warning the country that if it reached a nuclear-proliferation agreement with the United States and other world powers that the United States would break the agreement as soon as a Republican president took office, in 2017. He suggested that the agreement would not be worth the paper it was written on because only he and his colleagues in the Senate could ratify an enforceable treaty. Seven Republicans who chose to stick with the ancient ideal of restraining domestic politics at the ocean's edge wouldn't sign Cotton's letter.
House Speaker John Boehner had signaled that the old bipartisan policy was over when he invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a few weeks before Israeli elections, to address Congress and the American people to condemn the president's effort to get an international agreement. But, if it's possible, Tom Cotton's design was even more sinister and reckless. His letter was met with anger in the administration, consternation among the other negotiating nations, bewilderment by others in Congress and ridicule by Iran.
Cotton's purpose was not subtle — to encourage Iran not to sign an agreement this month with the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China that would limit Iran's ability to enrich weapons-grade uranium and allow international inspections. Cotton promised Iran that the United States would not live up to its end of the bargain.
If Iran turns down an agreement, as Cotton implored it to do, it would deny Obama a great triumph in his last two years in office, the senators' purpose, but also leave the United States with only two options: to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities with the attendant risk of war and international condemnation or else leave Israel to do the bombing with our backup. Israel is supposed to have 80 nuclear warheads that it could use if conventional bombs couldn't get it done.
That puts it more starkly than Cotton, Netanyahu or any of the other hawks will articulate, but it is the essence of their stance. None has offered an alternative to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, other than tougher sanctions (Iran has ignored all sanctions) and threatening Iran with certain destruction (Obama has only implied it) if it continues its nuclear development. Netanyahu wants the United States to do the dirty business of bombing, but he has announced that Israel will go it alone if it has to. Naturally, it expects the United States to back it up if its attacks lead to war.
Many Americans, probably most of the multitude who voted for Cotton last November, love the jingoistic talk but they don't like what it portends, another long and costly war in the Middle East.
The politics of the senators' letter is understandable, preventing another achievement by the hated president, but here is the danger: By telling Iran that the agreement is not enforceable and will be freely violated by the United States, they assure the Iranians that they are equally free to ignore the agreement when they wish. No one can be sure if the Iranians are truthful or lying when they say they intend to use nuclear power only for electricity and medicine (Iran's supreme leader says nuclear weapons violate Islamic law), but you can be sure if they scrap or flout the agreement they will recite Cotton's letter, signed by just short of a majority of the U.S. Senate, as condoning it.
Cotton's letter lectures the Iranians on U.S. constitutional law, explaining that only two-thirds of the U.S. Senate can ratify a treaty and make it enforceable. The Iranian foreign minister, a U.S. graduate, knew more about the U.S. Constitution and international law than Cotton does. The Senate does not ratify treaties. It gives its advice and consent to the president, who then decides whether to formally ratify a treaty. The foreign minister observed that the United States could violate an international agreement if it chose but that it would violate international law.
Challenging the legitimacy of presidential accords is an old congressional battle, but nearly every president in the past 75 years has executed them, often over congressional criticism: wartime agreements by President Roosevelt and subsequent ones by Truman, Nixon's Vietnam truce in 1973, Gerald Ford's Sinai agreements, and the list goes on. The biggest challenge was the series of Bricker amendments to the Constitution (named after Sen. John W. Bricker of Ohio) in the 1950s that would have outlawed presidential agreements. President Eisenhower fought his fellow Republican bitterly, declaring that the amendments would "cripple the executive power to the point that we become helpless in world affairs."
Memory is fleeting. How did North Korea, the craziest and most irresponsible regime in the world, get nuclear weapons when Cotton's great war president, George W. Bush, was in charge? North Korea began developing nuclear weapons in the 1980s, to President Reagan's mere chagrin. President Clinton and other powers negotiated an agreement in 1994 to supply light-water reactors to the country in exchange for disarmament. After President Bush listed North Korea, Iran and Iraq as "the axis of evil" in his State of the Union address in 2002 and then attacked Iraq, the North Koreans scrapped the agreement, resumed bomb-making and exploded their first nuclear device in 2006, putting America's protectorate, South Korea, in instant peril. There is no record of Republican senators, before or since, demanding that Bush take out their nuclear facilities or even threaten it.