Over the last couple of days, media outlets and some Democrats have lost their minds over the letter signed by 47 Republican Senators, sent to Iran to warn them that President Obama does not have the authority to create a lasting agreement without the participation of Congress. The New York Daily News ran a headline calling them “traitors,” a charge that has been bandied about on social media without any sense of either its legal sense or the history of Congressional influence on foreign policy. A petition on the White House website to arrest the 47 Senators has gathered over 136,000 signatures, in an apparent attempt of the ignorant to publicly self-identify.
Obviously, this situation requires a little history and perspective, as well as a civics lesson on the nature of co-equal branches of government, and on how this latest “treason” stacks up. The US and the Soviet Union conducted a 44-year “cold war” that often turned hot in places like Korea and Vietnam, and yet as Noah pointed out yesterday, Senator Ted Kennedy encouraged the Soviets to interfere in the 1984 election. Noah also mentions Nancy Pelosi’s trip to visit Bashar Assad in 2007 against the Bush administration’s express desires. But there are even more instances that speak more directly to Congressional interference with executive branch efforts on foreign policy.
Joe Scarborough pointed out one example this morning on Twitter from the Reagan era. The Reagan administration wanted to block Soviet influence in the Western hemisphere by backing rebellions against Communist dictators, especially in Nicaragua. Reagan supported the contras against Daniel Ortega, a policy which Democrats opposed and for which they later passed the controversial Boland Amendment in an attempt to restrict Reagan’s options in foreign policy (and which led to the Iran-Contra scandal.) Before Boland, though, 10 Democrats in the House – including Edward Boland (D-MA) – wrote a letter to Ortega called the “Dear Commandante” letter pledging their support to his government. See if this sounds familiar:
The 10 authors include Jim Wright of Texas, the majority leader; Edward P. Boland of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and other senior Democrats in the foreign policy field. The letter tells Mr. Ortega that it was written ”in a spirit of hopefulness and goodwill” and voices regret that relations between Nicaragua and Washington are not better.
The writers stress that they all oppose further money for rebel campaigns against the Sandinista Government. In a veiled reference to the Reagan Administration, the letter says that if the Sandinistas do hold genuine elections, those who are ”supporting violence” against the Nicaraguan leaders would have ”far greater difficulty winning support for their policies than they do today.”
In his retort, Representative Gingrich argues that the letter writers ”step across the boundary from opposition to a policy, to undercutting that policy.”
He also notes that the members of Congress offer to discuss these issues with Mr. Ortega and the junta. In Mr. Gingrich’s view, ”This clearly violates the executive branch’s exclusive prerogative of negotiating with a foreign government.”
Not convinced? Well, let’s look to more recent events. In September 2002, the Bush administration was preparing its case for war against Saddam Hussein, both with Congress and at the UN, for continuing violations of the cease-fire agreement that had ended war operations in 1991. Hussein’s forces repeatedly locked anti-aircraft radar on US and British fighters enforcing the no-fly zones in the south and north of Iraq. Hussein repeatedly and belligerently refused to fully comply with what would eventually be 17 UN Security Council resolutions aimed at settling the conflict. In the midst of that scenario, three House Democrats flew to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi officials and lecture George W. Bush on trusting Hussein and his regime:
IT’S A RARE POLITICAL MOMENT when Terry McAuliffe says no comment. Yet McAuliffe, the garrulous chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said just that last Wednesday at the Brookings Institution after a speech by Al Gore. Asked about the trip to Baghdad taken by three of his fellow partisans – Representatives David Bonior, Jim McDermott, and Mike Thompson – McAuliffe was nonplussed…
Problem is, the elected officials aren’t saying much either. Bonior was until recently the second-ranking Democrat in the House, and yet it’s nearly impossible to get Democrats to say anything about his and the others’ trip to Baghdad.
But if other Democrats aren’t talking about the Baghdad tour, Bonior and McDermott themselves won’t shut up. And the more they talk, the more scrutiny they invite.
The controversy ignited on September 29 when Bonior and McDermott appeared from Baghdad on ABC’s “This Week.” Host George Stephanopoulos asked McDermott about his recent comment that “the president of the United States will lie to the American people in order to get us into this war.”
Last I checked, no one had the three Democrats arrested for treason, even though they hadn’t just sent a letter to Saddam Hussein but cluelessly participated in his propaganda exercise for him. Why? Because it wasn’t treason, and it wasn’t even a violation of the Logan Act. It may have been ill-advised, but Congress and its members do a lot of ill-advised things, which is why we have regular elections to deal with them.
This letter may or may not be ill-advised, too. Jazz and Noah are split on that point, and I fall somewhere in between. The deal with Iran is just terrible on multiple levels, as is the attempt by the Obama administration to bypass Congress yet again instead of engaging the Senate to develop a stronger plan. It may have been politically wiser to put it in the form of an op-ed in the Washington Post rather than a letter to Ali Khameini, but the need to speak out comes from Obama’s mindless pursuit of a deal at all costs rather than allowing sanctions to force a capitulation – and to keep their support for terrorism bottled up as much as possible. But it’s not treason, and it’s idiotic to argue otherwise, especially with the long precedents set by Democrats and progressives in Congress over the last 30-plus years.
Yesterday I interviewed Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), one of the signatories, about his hearing today at Environment and Public Works on Obama’s Clean Power Plan. We also speak briefly about Iran and the letter toward the end of the interview.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger hammered John Kerry in 1985 for interfering in diplomatic negotiations with Nicaragua’s Marxist government as a Massachusetts senator.
Thirty years later, Kerry is skewering Senate Republicans for their open letter to the Iranian leadership warning that any nuclear deal with the United States without the advice and consent of the U.S. Congress would not last beyond President Obama’s term.
Kerry and then-Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin visited Nicaragua in 1985 to cut a deal with the Sandinista government, which was close to the former Soviet Union. President Ronald Reagan, however, was already set on overthrowing the Marxist government in Nicaragua by sending aid to a group of Nicaraguan rebels – the contras.
“The Sandinista government would agree to a cease-fire and restore civil liberties if the US government ceased its support of the contras,” the Boston Globe reported.
“If the United States is serious about peace, this is a great opportunity,” Kerry said at the time.
Kissinger, though, hit back at Kerry on the CBS Sunday program “Face the Nation,” calling him a congressman rather than a senator.
“With all due respect to Rep. Kerry, he’s a congressman,” Kissinger said. “He’s not secretary of state, and if the Nicaraguans want to make an offer, they ought to make it in diplomatic channels. We can’t be negotiating with our own congressman and the Nicaraguans simultaneously. My own view is that what we want from the Nicaraguans is the removal of foreign military and intelligence advisers.”
According to the Globe, Kerry responded that he was only applying the lessons he learned in Vietnam to Reagan’s actions in Central America.
Kerry, now secretary of state, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday and was asked by Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy how he reacted to the letter.
“My reaction to the letter was utter disbelief,” Kerry said. “During my 29 years here in the Senate I never heard of nor even heard of it being proposed anything comparable to this. If I had, I can tell you, no matter what the issue and no matter who was president, I would’ve certainly rejected it.”
“No one is questioning anybody’s right to dissent,” he continued. “Any senator can go to the floor any day and raise any of the questions that were raised. You write to the leaders in the middle of a negotiation – particularly the leaders that they have criticized other people for even engaging with or writing to – to write then and suggest they were going to give a constitutional lesson, which by the way was absolutely incorrect, is quite stunning. This letter ignores more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of American foreign policy.”