Talking Point Memo’s Brian Beutler takes issue with the New York Daily News on the topic of the open letter signed by 47 GOP Senators, spearheaded by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, and intended to undermine the United State’s nuclear arms negotiations with Iran. And in the process, he undermines the past, mostly successful efforts of Missouri’s Republican Senator Roy Blunt, who, along with the other members of the Senate GOP leadership, signed the letter, to present himself as thoughtful and moderate – at least in the context of the increasing radicalism of the rest of his party. Blunt has tried to do the political equivalent of talking out of both sides of his mouth for a long time – cozying up to the crazies when it’s useful and placating the moderates when he can do it without making a stir. Perhaps, though, his unwise decision to sign this dangerous letter might open some eyes about just how far he’s willing to venture into crazyland.
As Beutler noted earlier in The New Republic, the intent of the letter amounts to nothing less than sabotage:
Republicans have made no secret of their desire to sabotage multilateral negotiations over the Iranian government’s nuclear capabilities. That was the near-explicit purpose of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress last week. It’s what Senator Tom Cotton was getting at several weeks ago, when he said, “the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence.” And it’s supposedly the purpose of an open letter Cotton wrote-and that 47 Republicans signed-advising the Iranian government that the U.S. political system probably won’t sustain any deal they reach with the Obama administration.
The hope, as Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin explained, is that “the Iranian regime might be convinced to think twice.” Put another way, Republicans want Iran to abandon negotiations and get to work on a bomb, thus inviting harsher measures. The administration and its allies in the non-proliferation community are predictably aghast, but their anger stems mostly from the Republican Party’s recklessness and its abandonment of political norms-which generally don’t include lobbying foreign governments to undermine a U.S. administration’s diplomatic undertaking.
The Daily News, which ironically is a consistently conservative, militantly pro-Israel, paper, reacted to the letter by labeling the 47 senators who signed it, including Senator Blunt, “traitors” on the front page. According to the editorial explaining their stance:
Regardless of President Obama’s fecklessness in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, 47 Republican U.S. senators engaged in treachery by sending a letter to the mullahs aimed at cutting the legs out from under America’s commander-in-chief.
We join GOP signatories in opposing the pact as outlined, but we strenuously condemn their betrayal of the U.S. constitutional system.
The participants represented the bulk of the Republicans’ 54-member senatorial majority, vesting their petulant, condescending stunt with the coloration of an institutional foreign policy statement.
They are an embarrassment to the Senate and to the nation.
I have to admit that when I read about the letter, after I picked my jaw up off the floor, the word “treason” presented itself to me as well – and I’m thrilled that somebody else recognizes that Senator Blunt and his cohorts are an embarrassment. However, there’s some merit to Beutler’s argument that the act falls short of actual treason. He observes that the letter “would have been a terrible, tedious op-ed. Its subversiveness might have caused a stir. But I can’t imagine anyone would have called it treasonous.”
Cotton’s execution here was reckless and feckless in equal measure. And yes, it’s unconventional for a partisan congressional caucus to undermine a sitting president’s foreign policy like this. But you can’t untangle his tactics from his goals unless you’re willing to accept a certain level of congressional abdication from foreign policy under all circumstances. What makes Cotton reckless isn’t so much that he’s willing to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve his purpose. Its that his purpose is extremely unwise.
Beutler then gives us the old shoe-on-the-other-foot routine – and it’s damned convincing:
Not everyone in Congress has such bad ideas. In 2003, too many Democrats voted to grant President George W. Bush the authority to use military force in Iraq. This was a generational error. We’d all be better off today if they’d refused, and that wouldn’t have violated any vaunted foreign policy norms. But what if convincing fellow Senate Democrats to resist the Bush administration required extraordinary interference? If a Democrat had read conflicting weapons of mass destruction intelligence into the record on the Senate floor and warned the British government and other allies that Bush was manipulating them into war. This would’ve ruptured the normative foundations of foreign policy like an earthquake. It also would have been protected by the Constitution, and worth the damage.
But to recognize that signing this letter is not an act of treason is not to say that the signatories should not be held responsible for the harm they are doing. First, they are willfully undermining the government of the United States, and they’re arguably doing it in the service of partisan politics. Second, they have also indicated that they support increasing the instability and violence in the Mid-East – worse, that they want the U.S. and our American soldiers stuck up to our necks in that violence once again.
Beutler notes that a few Republicans, individuals he identifies as ” moderates and experienced foreign policy hands,” could not bring themselves to
do so sign the letter. The rest of the GOP Senate herd put pen to paper and in the process thumbed their nose at the large majorities of Americans who rejected the Bush foreign policy, which reflected Bush’s “gut” feelings, what economist Daniel Kahnerman identifies as “system 1 thinking,” fast, instinctive and emotional – and which pushed us into near disaster. Instead we opted for just what the Obama administration is giving us, Kahnerman’s “system 2 thinking”, slower, more deliberative, and more logical, thinking that is also pragmatic, capable of processing complexity, and geared to the realities of the world, rather than Bush’s childish games of cowboys and Indians that cost us so dearly.
So, in conclusion, while Roy Blunt may not be a clear-cut traitor, he is surely reckless and feckless, and always an embarrassment. And somebody has to bring this home to a crucial segment of the people who have voted for him in past years, people who always voted Republican long before the party went off the rails, people who’ve decided Blunt’s just a good ol’ big-money, status quo Republican who can be trusted to be responsible when push comes to shove. He can’t. He may not be a traitor, but he’s flirting with actions that have come perilously close to treason and that endanger us all.
*Edited slightly for clarity.