The Damage to U.S. Interests Abroad of Domestic Political Intemperance
Tom Cotton's sophomoric stunt of an open letter to the Iranians telling them not to have confidence in whatever the United States puts on the negotiating table has received the broad and swift condemnation it deserves. Some of the strong criticism has come from editorial pages and other sources of commentary that generally are not very friendly toward the Obama administration in general or even to its policies on Iran in particular. A bright side to this incident that embarrasses and disgraces half of the United States Senate comes in the clarity it provides in terms of what games are being played and what is at stake. Even before this latest antic, Cotton deserved credit for being more honest about his objective than most of his colleagues who are engaged in the same destructive efforts to undermine diplomacy on Iran. Cotton has stated openly and explicitly that his goal is to kill off any agreement at all with Iran. Unlike many others, he has not tried to fool us with the subterfuge that legislative sabotage is aimed at getting a chimerical “better deal” with Iran. Now with the letter, the unwritten alliance between American hardliners and Iranian hardliners in opposing any agreement is made more open than ever.
What is going on here is not just the work of Tom Cotton. The outrageous letter to the Iranians flows naturally from a broader ongoing process. The fact that the great majority of Republican senators signed the letter is the most obvious indication of that. There no doubt is today much regret in the senatorial offices involved, but the fact is that 47 of them signed it. There are a couple of possible interpretations of what took place among the members, neither of which makes those members look good. One is that they are so distracted or careless that they can let a 37-year-old who has been in the Senate only two months rope them into doing something this stupid. The other, which is the more plausible interpretation, is that Cotton's letter was only the latest vehicle for a journey that the whole party has already been taking for some time.
The letter was a natural next step after bringing Benjamin Netanyahu to the Capitol for the express purpose of denouncing and opposing U.S. policy toward Iran. In each case it was a matter of Congressional Republicans enlisting foreigners to try to sabotage a major element of current U.S. foreign policy. Because Israel is considered an “ally,” Netanyahu got to use the podium in the House chamber whereas Iranian hardliners do not get that privilege. But the fundamental nature and purpose of what was taking place was the same.
The impact of all of this on the immediate prospects for completing a nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran is certainly important and has been the subject of much of the immediate commentary about the letter. There is a basis for optimism that this clownish overplaying of their hand by some of those who would like to sabotage the diplomacy will lessen the danger of such sabotage. The episode at least demonstrates why, if one wants U.S. policy toward Iran to be formulated and executed in a responsible and adult way, then for the time being the less Congressional involvement there is the better.
We ought to reflect also, however, on how the kind of irresponsible behavior we have just seen is part of a bigger pattern that goes well beyond policy toward Iran and has deleterious effects on U.S. interests abroad besides what happens to an Iranian nuclear deal. This behavior damages U.S. credibility. There is an irony here in that some of those who signed Cotton's letter have been among those who have bemoaned supposed diminishing of America's international credibility because of other matters, usually involving issues of whether the United States should persist in prosecuting overseas military operations where any direct U.S. interests being protected are questionable. U.S. credibility is not determined by military doggedness in such situations. It is partly determined by the United States living up to negotiated multilateral agreements that are clearly in its interests, as would be the case with a P5+1 agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. Probably the single most remarkable—and egregious—aspect of the Cotton letter is that it was blatantly and expressly designed to damage U.S. credibility. In the future, it will lack credibility for any signatory of this letter to complain about alleged damage to U.S. credibility regarding anything else.
The connection between the sort of behavior we are talking about and the standing of the United States overseas, however, is even broader than that and extends to the handling of domestic policy. Foreigners and foreign governments observe how the United States, the superpower with the world's largest economy, handles its own affairs, and they draw conclusions about how viable and reliable an interlocutor the United States would be on international matters. The foreigners are looking to see whether there is consistency and rationality in how the U.S. political system pursues U.S. national interests. If they do see those things, then the United States is someone they can do business with, whether as a rival or as an ally, even if U.S. interests differ from their own. If they do not see those things, then opportunities are lost for doing business that would benefit both the United States and the foreign state.