“Traitors,” screamed a tabloid New York newspaper. “Heroes,” proclaimed conservative pundits. Actually, the 47 Republican Senators who signed a March 9th “Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” are neither traitors nor heroes; and neither is the President or the leadership of the House of Representatives. In fact, the ridiculous name-calling generated by the “Open Letter” authored by Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas — whose tenure in the Senate was all of about nine weeks when he circulated his letter — symbolizes the infantile depths to which the quality of American foreign policy has fallen in recent years. There simply is no leadership, anywhere.
Back in the day — let’s say during the Administration of Richard Nixon — we had presidents who, despite obvious flaws, understood politics among nations. In Nixon’s case, even his political enemies readily admitted he parlayed that expertise into widespread respect for the United States.
Secretaries of State, going back at least to the early days of the Cold War, were almost always highly respected men and women possessed of substantial academic and real-world credentials in international affairs. Whether Republican or Democrat, rarely were serious questions raised at home or abroad about their professional gravitas.
The caliber of those chosen to represent the United States at the highest level of foreign affairs reflected an understanding dating to our nation’s founding that America’s real and perceived position of leadership in the world really did matter. Yet, increasingly in recent years those heading the bureaucracy at “Foggy Bottom” are there because of politics, not diplomacy.
Similarly in the Congress, past leaders of both major political parties recognized the vital importance of placing representatives with a deep understanding of America’s position and interests in the world at the helm of key committees. Veteran members of the House and especially the Senate occupied leadership positions on the Foreign Affairs, Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees of both houses.
Today, we simply have what we have.
We have a president who by all outward signs, neither understands nor cares about foreign affairs; a shallowness reflected in his diplomatic and national security teams. From the start in January 2009, this president has lurched from one ill-advised position to another; embracing policies that very often contradict themselves along the way.
First, Washington embraced the “Arab Spring” without even understanding what it was about; it just “sounded good.” We threw our long-time ally Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak under the bus; only to be blindsided by the anti-West moves by the successor government headed by proponents of the Muslim Brotherhood.
One country to the west in Libya, this administration sat by while strongman Muammar Gaddafi dutifully complied with his promise to forsake and dismantle weapons of mass destruction; only to then throw him under the bus too when self-proclaimed “reformers” showed up and demanded aid and recognition from the West. Now, we are pariahs in that country; which has joined others in the region in descending into sectarian bloodletting with a pronounced anti-U.S. undertone. The 2012 Benghazi tragedy followed directly from our earlier naïve actions in that country.
And now we have Iran; a country far more complex in many ways than Iraq, Egypt, Syria or Libya. A country that has long-yearned to be counted among the ranks of nuclear powers, and is well on its way to achieving that goal. It is a country ruled since 1979 by fundamentally anti-American and anti-Israel religious zealots. And Obama has chosen to deal with the regime
Into the middle of this boiling political cauldron steps The Freshman — Sen. Cotton — who does not even occupy a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He audaciously drafts a letter to the leadership of Iran, in the midst of sensitive, ongoing negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Amazingly, Cotton was able to convince 46 of his Senate Republican colleagues — including some of its most senior members — to join him in this unprecedented move. Whether they all read the letter first — much less understood its message — is unclear.
Sure, the letter reflects the domestic political positions championed by the Republican grass roots; and yes, it goes over well at political events back home and in Tel Aviv. The letter even displays an accurate understanding of powers Congress possesses under our Constitution — powers the Senate and House often talk about but rarely act upon.
However, in terms of a responsible and timely way to assert that congressional power, it ranks about as high as the vision which Barack Obama and John Kerry bring to the negotiating table — ill-timed, ill-advised, and ill-prepared.
Until both houses of Congress and leaders of both parties once again elevate understanding of international relations above sound-bite politics, and until we have a president who actually cares about and understands international power politics, we’d all be better off if they simply stayed home and stayed quiet.