Three days after the Obama White House surprised many of its staunchest foreign-policy supporters by lifting its veto threat over a watered-down Corker-Menendez bill, it’s become quite clear that hard-line neoconservatives and their congressional allies are unhappy.
The first indication of their unhappiness came during the bill’s mark-up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Some of the Republicans who had intended to add amendments—which, if eventually approved, were clearly designed to sabotage the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, such as Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) idea of requiring Tehran to recognize Israel—looked positively dyspeptic as the Committee’s Democrats all voted aye.
But evidence that neocons were less than enthusiastic about the final result came within just a couple of hours of the committee’s approval. Bill Kristol, co-director of the Emergency Committee for Israel and editor of The Weekly Standard whose print edition for the last couple of weeks has featured article after article demonizing Iran on every possible front imaginable, tweeted: “Corker-Menendez vote today probably helpful. But need to remember: The task is to kill the deal, not merely to complicate its trajectory.”
The following morning, he was trying to sound constructive. But he wasn’t exactly persuasive. “Corker-Menendez, by itself, would be a way to lose gracefully on the Iran deal. But it can be one piece in a broader strategy to stop it,” tweeted Kristol, who often acts as if were the spokesman for Sheldon Adelson and Bibi Netanyahu.
Wall Street Journal Weighs In
Much the same tone was expressed in Wednesday’s lead editorial of the Wall Street Journal, perhaps the most influential source of neo-con foreign-policy orthodoxy. Entitled “Obama’s One-Man Nuclear Deal,” the article exuded disappointment, even in its sub-head: “Congress will get a vote but the President still has a free hand.” The editorial went on:
Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker deserves credit for trying, but in the end he had to agree to Democratic changes watering down the measure if he wanted 67 votes to override an Obama veto.
Our own view of all this is closer to that of Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who spoke for (but didn’t offer) an amendment in committee Tuesday to require that Mr. Obama submit the Iran nuclear deal as a treaty [thus requiring an affirmative vote by 2/3 of the Senate].
Committing the U.S. to a deal of this magnitude—concerning proliferation of the world’s most destructive weapons—should require treaty ratification.
And So Does the Standard
But confirmation of hard-line neocon dissatisfaction came Friday with Kristol’s authorship of the lead editorial in the Standard’s latest issue. Entitled “The Iran Deal: Oppose, Obstruct, Delay …Defeat,” it actually referred to the rechristened “Corker-Cardin legislation” as a possible “trap.”
This week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported out legislation—sponsored by Bob Corker of Tennessee and Ben Cardin of Maryland—that would ensure Congress has a role in approving or disapproving a deal. Unfortunately, the fact that only 34 senators or 146 members of the House can prevent disapproval of the deal makes the legislation of limited utility. And the fact that the legislation allows action only after the deal is signed, and then for a short period of time, makes it of questionable effectiveness.
But there are many other avenues of opposition, obstruction, and delay that Congress can take. All should be explored. Congress can seek to pass bills and amendments retaining U.S. sanctions and removing the president’s waiver authority if certain conditions aren’t met in the nuclear deal, and if certain conditions aren’t met in terms of Iranian behavior with respect to terror and other issues. Congress could insist on no waiver of sanctions until the International Atomic Energy Agency certifies full Iranian cooperation in resolving questions about past efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Congress could require all manner of reports from the administration or from outside groups on, e.g., the implications of the S-300 sale to Iran, on Iranian terror-sponsorship, or many other aspects of Iranian behavior—and Congress could block waiver or removal of sanctions until it has had time to consider those reports. Imaginative patriots will think of other ways and means for Congress to intervene.
President Obama will resist such efforts and threaten to veto them. Perhaps Senate Democrats will block them from even getting to his desk. But one doesn’t know how Senate and House Democrats will actually vote on such measures, or how much public pressure could be brought to bear, until members of Congress try seriously to advance them.
What we do know is that the Corker-Cardin legislation is unlikely to be enough. In fact, it can be a trap, if it encourages Congress to otherwise back off until a deal is signed—and then sets up a process arranged to make it difficult to disapprove a bad deal once signed. The key is to work to stop the deal from being signed. This requires putting pressure on the weak points of the framework agreement and introducing into the legislative equation other unacceptable aspects of Iranian behavior. [Emphasis added]
Apparently this editorial provoked some consternation in the ranks, as Kristol took to his blog site early Friday morning noting that he had “received several inquiries asking me to spell out some implications” of what he had just published in the magazine. “Five Points on the Iran Deal” essentially concluded that the bill, by essentially putting off a vote on a final nuclear deal until after one had been signed, was a potential catastrophe:
1) No deal is better than a bad Iran deal. And a bad Iran deal is not just a foreign policy setback. It’s a foreign policy disaster.
2) The administration is heading toward a bad deal (see Kissinger-Schultz, and now even James Baker). [A close reading of the Baker op-ed makes it appear more supportive of the deal than opposed, but each to his own interpretations.]
3) The Corker bill only helps, if it does, after a deal has been signed—and then 67 votes in the Senate and 290 in the House are needed to overturn a deal. That’s unlikely. And a lot of damage in the region (just from signing the deal) will have been done. So Congress can’t pass the Corker bill and feel it’s done its duty.
4) To the contrary, Congress has to spend the next weeks and months urgently raising questions, demanding clarifications, requesting reports, and trying to insist on various conditions for a deal. Even if such legislation doesn’t become law, it can make a bad deal more difficult for the administration to achieve (perhaps by inducing the Iranians to walk away), or to sell to Congress and the public.
5) The best way to defeat a bad deal is to prevent one. Prevention means, for the time being, questioning and challenging and obstructing. And delay is now our friend.
Points 3 and 4 appear to confirm that, in Kristol’s eyes, the Corker bill is indeed a trap that the administration—whether by design or by serendipity—was able to pull off.
So What Now?
Will Rubio and Johnson offer their amendments when the Corker bill comes to the floor? Certainly, Kristol and the Journal appear to be calling for that. It was one thing for Corker to persuade them not to do it in committee. But can Mitch McConnell restrain them, especially given the likely encouragement of Kristol and wealthy donors like Adelson and Paul Singer who appear to stand behind him? Rubio already suggested after Tuesday’s committee vote when he sat on his hands that he would take it to the floor: “I wanted there to be an amendment on this where the president has to certify to Congress that Iran’s leaders have publicly accepted Israel’s right to exist at a minimum. This is an issue that we’re going to have to talk about on the floor as we move forward beyond this place today.”
Of course, any such attempt could garner solid Republican support ensuring its approval, but, because it’s clearer than ever that the supporters of such an effort want to kill the deal a la Kristol protégé Tom Cotton (and not just try to get a “better deal”), fence-sitting Democrats are much more likely to rally behind Obama. And that may mean that the bill, as amended, could be successfully filibustered, and Obama would never even have to cast a veto.
Kristol’s appeal naturally goes beyond the Corker bill to urge any and all tactics that could still sabotage the talks, and no doubt some Republicans will try to oblige him by tacking on amendments to other bills. But this will carry political costs, as Kristol himself noted Friday.
Some will say this isn’t the way everyday business is done in Congress. And what party wants to look as if it is opposing and obstructing and delaying?
But these aren’t everyday times. The prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons isn’t an everyday moment for America or the world. …In such circumstances, a great political party has to have the courage to oppose, to obstruct, to delay … and defeat the deal.
The neocons, so hopeful at the beginning of the week that the Corker bill would strike a mortal blow against the Iran deal, are now unhappy. And Republicans have to decide whether to continue bowing to Bibi and the neocons as they enter an election year with an electorate fed up with both partisanship and Middle East wars.