Friends and colleagues have asked me several times today for my opinion on the open letter to the Iranian government signed by forty-seven Republican members of the Senate, also known as the “Tom Cotton Letter.”
Since both the letter and the reactions to it have raised significant questions about the conduct and direction of American foreign policy, I think it is worth presenting a brief analysis, to help advance the conversation.
1. The best face to put on the letter is that Senator Cotton (R-AR) and his colleagues are expressing their concerns about what they consider a dangerous direction in American diplomacy, and their skepticism about any likely deal with Iran. That is of course very much within the rights of any member of congress (indeed, any American citizen). We are under no compulsion to agree with everything the President does, no matter what his more enthusiastic supporters may be implying on Facebook and elsewhere these days. I am also worried about how this deal is shaping up, and think we should be having a serious and public discussion of our policy vis-à-vis Iran.
2. That being said, the form chosen is so inappropriate as to severely undermine any point the authors hoped to make. Writing a brief “open letter” to a foreign government that includes condescending and amateurish (and, may I add, passive-aggressive) references to Congress’s role in the treaty process serves no good purpose at all. It not only shows contempt for the Executive Branch’s responsibility for foreign affairs, it also insults the intelligence of the Iranians. On top of that, it also undermines our negotiating partners, who include many of our closest allies in the world. Loudly announcing that the President has no authority to make a deal is deeply destructive, and will not be much help to future presidents either, whatever party they represent. I do not pretend to be able to look into the souls of the authors, but it appears to me that they have allowed their contempt for the president and the process, and their desire to play to certain putative elements of their political base, to blind them to the deeply problematic elements of this course of action. An open letter that reflects a closed mind is bad politics and worse policy.
3. I repeat, the problem is not that they disagree with the president, but rather in appealing to the Iranians in this way. I fail to see how it serves any purpose other than to make them appear petty and the United States government appear dysfunctional. If the looming agreement is so terrible, then a better agreement will take further negotiation. They cannot seriously expect this letter to improve the western negotiating position; if they just want to torpedo any possibility of continued talks with no sense of what should come next, they are being irresponsible in the extreme.
4. What could/should they have done instead? Give speeches in the Senate, write op-ed pieces for American newspapers, and give TV interviews expressing their concerns about the deal. Those are perfectly legitimate ways to participate in public debate. I made a joke yesterday to a colleague (Michael Schwarz of Ashland University) that I “was still smarting about the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions,” which criticized the Alien and Sedition Acts, and reflected Jeffersonian doubts about Federalist foreign policy. (Historians, I admit, joke about odd and obscure things sometimes.) The difference, however, is that Madison and Jefferson were within their rights to criticize government policy in print and debate. Of course one can always say “the enemy is listening,” but it does not hurt anyone for the world to see how vibrant and constructive political debate in a democracy can be.
5. With that in mind, any complaints about the negotiations and the possibilities of a deal with Iran should be adult enough to deal in specific concerns and possible solutions. What would a good deal look like from the perspective of these critics? If they have complaints about the President not including Congress in his plans, how about making that the meat of their argument? The letter as it stands merely says that an agreement without Congressional approval could be reversed by the next President, which is true but irrelevant to the policy question. A better piece would make a constructive argument for congressional participation in the discussions, and even go on record as to what the Congress would like to see in a final agreement. Not including such things makes the organizational complaints sound disingenuous. If Senator Cotton and his colleagues believe that no agreement is possible under any circumstances, they should have the courage to say it, and the common sense to say what implications that has for American foreign policy.
6. Finally, I am especially pained to see that many smart conservatives, in their rush to defend compatriots against criticism, are acting as though questions of form and method are unimportant, or simply saying “well the other guy did/does/will do it too.” It matters a great deal how a state manages its foreign policy. It matters a great deal that the leaders of a democratic state recognize the legitimacy of their colleagues, even if they happen to be from the other party. And it matters a great deal how well the institutions of a representative government relate to each other and to any policy debate, now and in the future. Everyone knows that, and for columnists and commentators to pretend otherwise is a further insult to our intelligence and does neither the spokespeople nor their cause any good.
7. The release of this letter is a new low in the management of serious foreign policy debate in this country. Somebody needs to stop this race to the bottom, or no one will be able to govern this country and manage its relations with the world at all.
This entire discussion reminds me of a favorite quote from Robert Bolt’s play, A Man For All Seasons—which is a favorite play of mine, about one of my heroes, Thomas More. In it, More defends the need for formal legal procedures against the arguments of his fanatical son-in-law, Roper:
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
For the sake of our, and the world’s safety, American leaders need to respect each other and the foreign policy process, if we hope to develop a sensible foreign policy.