Writing off unity on Iranian nukes

The following editorial appeared in the Charlotte Observer:

If Job No. 1 for Richard Burr and Thom Tillis is ratcheting up their tea party appeal, they should be congratulated for signing on to the controversial letter 47 senators sent to Iran this week in hopes of subverting the Obama administration’s long-sought nuclear arms pact.

But if North Carolina’s U.S. senators aspire to become respected statesmen or foreign policy leaders, they took a giant step in the wrong direction by joining freshman Sen. Tom Cotton’s reckless gambit.

The letter, whose tone better suits snarky satire than serious diplomacy, tells the Iranians that it appears they “might not fully understand our constitutional system.”

It says President Obama can negotiate a treaty, but the Senate must ratify it by a two-thirds vote. As Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith notes, the Senate’s own Web page says it does not ratify treaties. It handles its constitutional duty to give the president its advice and consent on foreign treaties by taking up a resolution of ratification.

The president then proceeds with ratification.

A nuance? Perhaps. But when you’re lecturing someone about fine points, you might want to sharpen your own pencil first.

For a country with a tradition of keeping ugly partisan squabbles inside our borders, the whole thing is an embarrassment.

Those crying “treason!” ought to take a breath, however. In 1984, the House Democratic Majority Leader, Rep. Jim Wright, joined others in writing Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega. They suggested that fair elections in his country would “strengthen the hands” of U.S. allies.

And in 2007, Nancy Pelosi traveled to Syria to meet with Bashar al-Assad at a time when the Bush administration was trying to isolate the dictator.

However, Pelosi notified the White House before her trip. And Wright’s letter offered a broad hint about assistance, but no specific promises to overturn then-current policies. In neither case was a foreign country told to disregard the sitting president’s authority.

It’s hard to say what impact the Cotton letter will have. It could undermine the negotiations, or it could help Secretary of State John Kerry make a more convincing case to Iranian negotiators that now is their best – and perhaps only – chance to make a deal.

That doesn’t worry Burr or Tillis. An angry Vice President Joe Biden called the letter campaign “beneath the dignity of an institution I revere.” To which Burr retorted: “Well, I’m glad to see him wake up and actually have interest in something.”

Seven Republican senators didn’t sign it. One, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, rightly noted that there is already “a lot of animosity” between Congress and the White House. The threat of a nuclear Iran, he added, is “too important to divide us among partisan lines.”

That’s leadership. That’s cool-headed statesmanship. Too bad our senators failed to show it.

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