Iran letter: The roughest of drafts

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, said he wasn’t surprised by the backlash against his letter.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, said he wasn’t surprised by the backlash against his letter. WASHINGTON POST

The true scandal of the Tom Cotton letter to Iranian leaders is the manner in which the Republican Senate apparently conducts its affairs.

The document was crafted by a senator with two months of experience under his belt. It was signed by some members rushing off the Senate floor to catch airplanes, often with little close analysis. Many of the 47 signatories reasoned that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s endorsement was vetting enough. There was no caucus-wide debate about strategy; no consultation with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who has studiously followed the nuclear talks (and who refused to sign).

This was a foreign policy maneuver, in the middle of a high-stakes negotiation, with all the gravity and deliberation of a blog posting. In timing, tone and substance, it raises questions about the Republican majority’s capacity to govern.

It is true that President Obama set this little drama in motion. Major arms-control treaties have traditionally involved advice and consent by the Senate. Obama is proposing to expand the practice of executive agreements to cover his prospective Iranian deal – effectively cutting senators out of the process. By renewing a long-standing balance-of-powers debate – in a way that highlights his own propensity for power-grabbiness – Obama invited resistance. And there is a practical argument for Senate approval of arms-control agreements: It strengthens and empowers the president in punishing violations. The whole U.S. government is placed on record promising consequences for infractions (if, of course, the Senate concurs).

The exact shape of a possible Iran deal remains unknown.

But the half-baked Cotton letter was a poor instrument to express concern. First, the bleedingly obvious: If Republican senators want to make the point that an Iran deal requires a treaty, they should make that case to the American people, not to the Iranians. Congress simply has no business conducting foreign policy with a foreign government, especially an adversarial one.

In this particular situation, paradoxically, the main result is not a weakened presidency but a weakened legislature. Corker has been toiling with the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Robert Menendez, to craft legislation that would require Senate approval of an Iran deal. Before the Cotton letter, Corker was two votes away from a veto-proof, bipartisan majority. But now Obama and Minority Leader Harry Reid are using the letter to argue that Republicans are only engaged in partisan games. If the Corker bill fails narrowly, Obama might have Cotton’s missive to thank.

In the aftermath of the letter, we are seeing the logic of partisan escalation. Didn’t Democrats open their own rogue negotiations with Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega in the 1980s? Or sip tea with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad against the wishes of the George W. Bush administration? Of course they did. But justifying a bad idea by recounting a history of bad ideas is a bad way to conduct foreign policy. It is the crutch of a partisan, not the argument of a statesman.

This is presumably the reason we have a Senate, not only a House. A six-year term should ensure an extra 30 minutes to read a document and think through its implications.

Michael Gerson’s email address is