Freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) is not a stupid person, at least if we assume that dummies don’t graduate from Harvard and Harvard Law. Nor should we really question the man’s patriotism; he served in the military, with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like a lot of young politicians (he’s 37), he’s ambitious; he wants to make his mark. He’s off to a rousing start. He authored, and got 47 senators to sign, a letter to Iran, carefully explaining our Constitutional form of government. And also why any deal their government negotiates with President Obama isn’t worth doodly-squat.
The ‘Cotton letter’ really is something to behold. Here’s how it starts: “It has come to our attention . . . that you may not understand our constitutional system of government.” That’s the tone; condescending and imperial. Insulting? I think so. It’s an open letter to “The Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” and it’s about Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the Obama administration. Which suggests that it’s intended, first of all, to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif.
So who is Zarif, this Islamist fanatic, this provincial Persian, this ignorant non-entity? Well, Zarif has two Master’s Degrees in International Relations, one from San Francisco State University, and one from the University of Denver, and a PhD from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, also in Denver. I’ve learned all kinds of stuff about Zarif; took me three minutes to find his his Wikipedia article. (I assume Cotton has, at least, a staffer who could have shown him how to find Wikipedia). Zarif’s an expert on nuclear disarmament. He has two kids, both born in the US (and thus eligible for American citizenship). He probably speaks better English than Cotton does. So, yeah, I think we can safely assume that Zarif is reasonably familiar with the US constitution.
All across the country, newspapers are condemning the Cotton letter. One of them is the highly conservative Deseret News, which called it ‘ill-timed,’ which is about as far as they dared go in criticizing a Tea Party darling. What at least some of these op-ed pieces have pointed out is not just the questionable judgment (even patriotism) of a bunch of senators criticizing an on-going negotiation. The Senate’s constitutional ‘advise and consent’ role is, actually, limited to formal treaties. The Senate has no constitutional role in on-going negotiations. The President is charged with conducting foreign policy. Which this President happens to be particularly good at. Sorry, but it’s so.
The Cotton letter reminds the Iranians that President Obama will be out of office in 2017, and that it’s quite possible that the new President will not share his foreign policy objectives and tactics. That’s certainly true, as far as it goes. But what the President and Secretary Kerry is currently negotiating is not a formal treaty between the US and Iran. It’s a complicated multi-national agreement involving Britain, France, China, Germany and Russian, in addition to other nations. Are 47 Senators really intent on binding the hands of the incoming President like this? Let’s suppose that the Republicans win in 2017 (the letter seems to take that as a given). Will the first act of President Republican Guy’s new administration be an open slap in the face to our closest allies, as well as a de facto declaration of war against Iran? Seriously?
The last paragraph of Cotton’s letter states that ‘any agreement . . . that is not approved by Congress’ is nothing more than ‘an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khameini.’ It would therefore be easily revokable. That’s factually inaccurate; it would be an agreement involving many other nations. And it’s also ignorant of Iran’s complex governmental structure. As the Deseret News editorial pointed out, Khameini is not a dictator. He certainly has a lot of power in Iran, but it’s delicately balanced between the elected government, the Council of Mullahs, and other entities. It’s certainly true, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week (in his equally ill-advised speech) that Khameini has made appallingly anti-Semitic statements in the past. Those statements have, however, been repudiated by, among others, Zarif.
I’m not quite sure that it’s fair to call Cotton ‘Sarah Palin with a Harvard degree’ as Salon.com did recently. Nor is it fair to call his dumb letter an act of treason. That’s a strong accusation, and overstated in this case. It was just stupid. That’s all, and that’s enough. Basically it sends a message internationally that a lot of people in the American Congress are dimwitted. And that some of them are running for President.
As, for example, Marco Rubio, who seriously asked Secretary Kerry, earlier this week, if the reason we haven’t sent more troops into Iraq, or launch more air strikes, to fight against ISIS is because we didn’t want to offend Iran. Secretary Kerry’s rather starchy reply “the facts completely contradict that.” Among those facts would be the presence of Iranian troops liberating Tikrit. Or the 2700 air strikes the US has already launched against ISIS.
At least for now, it appears as though the Republicans have their foreign policy issue heading into 2016. It’s going to be Iran. The Obama administration is soft on Iran, apparently, and also soft on ISIS. Because John Kerry is willing to sit in a room together with Mohammed Zarif.
I do think that the Cotton letter accomplished one thing. It persuaded Zarif that the US Senate doesn’t need to be taken seriously on foreign policy. And now negotiations can continue. And when she takes office, President Clinton may even have a functioning majority in the Senate again. I can think of 47 guys who are going to be vulnerable.