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Tom Cotton got his name scrawled across the heavens for two weeks for writing a letter to the potentates of Iran, undoubtedly a good thing for a young Arkansas politician only two months in his exalted office, and his party probably suffered only a momentary embarrassment.
Only a handful of the 46 Republican senators he got to sign the letter acknowledged the grave mistake they had made. Sen. John McCain, the modern War Hawk, chalked it up to his and the other senators' haste to get out of town ahead of bad weather. No time to think, he explained, but just to sign your name for the young buck from Arkansas. After all, the great cause of embarrassing the president was worth just about any risk.
America will be lucky if Cotton's ascension among war-loving, Obama-hating voters back home and a brief Republican humiliation is all that comes of the letter. Alas, we will be lucky if announcing to the world that the United States cannot be trusted to live up to its end of diplomatic agreements will have no repercussions beyond the current drive for an international accord to prevent Iran from joining Israel and Pakistan as Middle Eastern nuclear powers.
It sure enough affects the parley between Iran and the six nations seeking verifiable curbs on Iran's bomb-making capacity, although not in the way Cotton said he intended. He was warning the Iranians that the United States would violate any agreement President Obama and the other nations reached with the country, by the next president in 2017 if not earlier by the current Republican Congress. Cotton hoped to deter the Iranians from signing an agreement.
But Cotton's letter, signed by just short of a majority of the Senate, could have only one effect on the Iranians, as everyone except Cotton and his 46 co-signers immediately recognized. It greatly strengthened Iran's bargaining position and weakened the United States'. When the negotiations resumed this week Iran's foreign minister pressed the Western negotiators on the senators' point that the United States would consider its agreement worthless. How much safety we will have to give up as a result we may never know.
Look, take Dick Cheney's word for it. The former vice president and defense secretary, architect of the Middle East wars and Tom Cotton's patron, weighed in with a stern warning about "congressional overreaching" that interfered with the president's constitutional powers to conduct diplomacy. Here are his words:
"Congress's efforts to dictate diplomatic bargaining tactics, as well as efforts by individual members to conduct back-channel negotiations on their own, make it extremely difficult for the country to sustain a consistent bargaining posture for an extended time period, whomever the president and whatever the policy."
OK, I'm a trifle misleading. Cheney, a congressman at the time, was talking in the late '80 to a conservative Washington think tank, and not about Obama and the Iranians but about Ronald Reagan and the Iranians.
But if his point had validity then, under the weakest circumstances in U.S. diplomatic history, it certainly has validity now. Let's return to the glorious last days of the Reagan revolution.
Wanting to free seven U.S. hostages held in Lebanon, the Reagan White House worked out a secret deal in 1984 to sell 2,508 missiles and arms parts to Iran, using Israel as the go-between. You may remember the celebrated details: U.S. diplomats arrived in Tehran with a cake baked in the shape of a key (a key to good relations, see) and a Bible with a handwritten verse from Reagan.
Iran needed the arms to wage war against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, whom the Reagan administration supported. Reagan took the proceeds from the arms sale piped through Israel and gave it to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Iran had been declared a state sponsor of terrorism and was under an international embargo since 1979 (negotiated by President Jimmy Carter) after it took Americans hostage at the embassy in Tehran. Providing money to the Contras also violated an act of Congress. A few of the hostages in Lebanon were released during the arms trading but more hostages were captured in 1986 to take their place.
You can see the similarities to the current dilemma — except Reagan was expanding Iran's strategic arms supply and Obama is trying to restrain it, and the Reagan agreement was done in secret and the Obama administration regularly briefs Congress and the world on Iran diplomacy.
The Reagan deal with Iran came to light in November 1986 when someone leaked it to a Lebanese magazine and the Nicaraguans shot down an airlift of U.S. arms to the rebels. When Congress began hearings on the deals, the White House shredded its documents. Fifteen members of the Reagan administration were indicted but their convictions were either overturned on appeal or else they received presidential pardons.
Republicans, led by then-Rep. Dick Cheney, condemned the Democratic congressional majority for its investigation and condemnation of the deals. Cheney said the president had the constitutional authority to ignore acts of Congress dealing with foreign affairs, specifically the ban on aid to the Contras.
But there is a more sympathetic way to look at Tom Cotton's letter that avoids these troublesome precedents. Early last fall, when Cotton's race against Mark Pryor didn't look like a cinch, the right-wing lobby Emergency Committee for Israel dumped $700,000 into the race for television, radio and digital ads attacking Pryor for cowardice in the face of threats from American enemies all over the world. He's not much of a guy who won't reward his friends.