If the Obama administration thinks U.S. Senator Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) letter is a threat to their negotiations with Iran, they should consider the actions of the late Jesse Helms.
Helms (R-NC) was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the latter part of the Clinton presidency and made no bones about attempts to circumvent Congress so the White House could claim a big foreign policy headline.
In an op-ed published the day Clinton was to engage in talks with Vladimir Putin about reducing missile defense capabilities, Helms declared, “After dragging his feet on missile defense for nearly eight years, Mr. Clinton now fervently hopes that he will be permitted, in his final months in office, to tie the hands of the next President.”
Helms would have none of it. “Well I, for one, have a message for the President: Not on my watch. Let’s be clear, to avoid any misunderstandings: Any modified ABM treaty negotiated by this administration will be dead-on-arrival at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee… The Russian government should not be under any illusions whatsoever that any commitments made by this lame-duck Administration, will be binding on the next administration.”
And with that, the talks dissolved.
In this context, Cotton’s letter is tame by comparison. Which isn’t to say that it lacks verve and importance. Cotton and the forty-six other Senators who educated the Iranian leadership on the limitations of Obama’s go-it-alone strategy are guarding against the misimpression that Obama’s dealmaking lasts any longer than his hold on office.
What Helms and Cotton have in common is a clear-eyed view of constitutional procedure, and the difference it makes when shunted aside. If Obama wants a legacy pact with Iran, he can’t do it on the cheap. Congress – and specifically the Senate – needs to be consulted, the sooner the better.