On Monday in Lausanne, Switzerland, Iranian negotiators demanded that their American counterparts explain to them the meaning of the open letter sent to Iranian leaders by 47 Republican U.S. senators. In the letter, the senators declared that any agreement with the current resident of the White House could be modified or nullified by a future president or by Congress. Apparently, their goal was to scuttle the Obama administration's effort to reach a deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry and the other U.S. officials in Switzerland who are trying to make that deal declined to characterize their response to the Iranians, but one might assume it was something like, “Hey, you’ve got your hardliners back home and we’ve got ours.”
The Republicans’ letter may not scare Iran’s rulers away from an agreement, but it contained a passage that ought to send a chill up American spines. Pointing out that a president is limited to two four-year terms, the letter noted that senators can keep adding six-year terms for as long as they keep getting reelected.
“As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades,” the letter said.
Now that is a genuinely frightening thought. Jeff Sessions, Richard Shelby, David Vitter, Joni Ernst, Jim Inhofe, Mike Crapo, Ted Cruz and the rest of the saber-rattling, climate change-denying, corporation-adoring, immigrant-fearing cranks might still be in the Senate for years and years to come. God save America.
The one who could be around the longest is the freshman senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton. At 37, he is the Senate’s youngest member; he's the precocious darling of the conservative establishment who came up with the idea for the letter to Iran. Cotton claims his mail to the ayatollahs was a necessary assertion of the Senate's constitutional role in reviewing and approving treaties, but by intruding on the negotiations he flouted another constitutional mandate -- the one that makes it the president’s job to forge international agreements on behalf of the nation.
Republicans justify their unyielding belligerence by forever implying that only they speak for the people of the United States. However, while Cotton and his colleagues have won elections in most of the old Confederacy and several sparsely-populated states in the West and Midwest, the president and vice president are the only two governmental leaders elected by the entire country. Republicans have been in denial about it for six years, yet the fact remains that Barack Obama has twice been chosen by a solid majority of American voters to represent them in the world.
It is dangerous for any bunch of senators to insert themselves so directly into delicate diplomacy involving six other countries about an issue as serious as nuclear weapons, but Cotton is happy to court danger since his favored alternative to diplomacy is military action against Iran. One would think that the Senate’s elders might have stepped in to caution the brash upstart from Arkansas. Rather than doing doing that, though, old guys like Mitch McConnell and John McCain added their signatures to Cotton’s letter.
McCain claimed he really didn’t read what he was signing. The Arizonan was in a hurry to get out of Washington before a snowstorm hit. Besides, he said, he gets lots of letters placed on his desk that colleagues want him to sign. Apparently for McCain it was not notable that this particular letter was postmarked for Tehran.
Critics of the Republican senators’ missive have branded it everything from a breach in protocol to treason. Whatever one wants to call it, the letter surely is one more glaring example of what poisonous partisan politics has done to undermine the image and authority of the United States in the eyes of the world. When U.S. senators cannot resist acting like impulsive children spoiling for a fight, we should not be surprised if people in other countries begin to wonder if Americans still have the requisite maturity to be global leaders.