What’s Driving Some Democrats to Defy Obama on Iran?

If they can’t give Obama the benefit of the doubt, Democrats should at least keep politics out of foreign policy.

President Barack Obama meets with President of the Government of the Kingdom of Spain Mariano Rajoy Brey (not seen) in the Oval Office of the White House on January 13, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Jan. 14, 2014, 5:12 a.m.

This para­graph from a New York Times story on pro­posed new sanc­tions for Ir­an sent a chill down my spine:

Be­hind these po­s­i­tions is a po­tent mix of polit­ic­al cal­cu­la­tions in a midterm elec­tion year. Pro-Is­rael groups like the Amer­ic­an Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, or AIPAC, have lob­bied Con­gress to ratchet up the pres­sure on Ir­an, and many law­makers are con­vinced that Tehran is bluff­ing in its threat to walk away from the talks.

I’m am­bi­val­ent about the de­bate over Ir­an: Pres­id­ent Obama is pur­su­ing an agree­ment with Tehran to sus­pend its nuc­le­ar pro­gram (sounds good), while many law­makers don’t be­lieve Ir­an can’t be trus­ted to com­ply with any dip­lo­mat­ic ac­cord (makes sense). But I don’t want U.S. for­eign policy swayed by lob­by­ists and polit­ics.

It is the un­am­bigu­ous policy of the United States to for­bid Ir­an from destabil­iz­ing the Middle East and threat­en­ing Is­rael with a nuc­le­ar pro­gram. The ques­tion is how to curb Tehran.

Obama wants to ex­ploit the crip­pling ef­fects of ex­ist­ing sanc­tions to ne­go­ti­ate an an­ti­nuc­lear deal. The White House ar­gues that a strict new sanc­tions law would scuttle dip­lomacy and make mil­it­ary ac­tion more likely. His op­pon­ents, the GOP and a sur­pris­ing num­ber of Demo­crats, ar­gue that new sanc­tions would de­crease the chances of war by keep­ing Ir­an in line.

Pro-sanc­tions forces ac­cuse the White House of politi­ciz­ing the is­sue by in­vok­ing the specter of war, but there is an­oth­er polit­ic­al com­pon­ent: the in­flu­ence of AIPAC and the im­port­ance of Jew­ish voters to the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion.

Peter Bein­art ar­gues that lib­er­als are not pres­sur­ing Sen­ate Demo­crats enough to op­pose the bill.

So why on earth are four­teen Demo­crats join­ing Ted Cruz and Marco Ru­bio in openly de­fy­ing the pres­id­ent? In a party that is clearly mov­ing left on eco­nom­ics, how can so many prom­in­ent Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors sup­port a bill so widely scorned by Demo­crat­ic for­eign policy ex­perts? Be­cause in re­cent years grass­roots Demo­crats have turned their at­ten­tion away from Middle East policy and AIPAC has not “¦

In 2006, Demo­crats en­raged by Joe Lieber­man’s sup­port for the Ir­aq war denied him their party’s re­nom­in­a­tion for Sen­ate. In 2008, Demo­crats em­bittered by Hil­lary Clin­ton’s sup­port for Ir­aq helped or­ches­trate one of the biggest up­sets in pres­id­en­tial his­tory. But they were too late; the dam­age was already done. The Amer­ic­an left is very good at pun­ish­ing politi­cians for sup­port­ing dis­astrous wars. Its chal­lenge in 2014 is to show that it can stop politi­cians from pro­mot­ing those wars in the first place.

Greg Sar­gent of the Wash­ing­ton Post has a good vote count on the bill for strict new sanc­tions (“An Odd Si­lence Among Sen­ate Dems on Ir­an”):

Right now, the cur­rent count of sen­at­ors who are co-spon­sor­ing the Ir­an sanc­tions bill is at 58, with 16 Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors sup­port­ing it. Mean­while, 10 Demo­crat­ic com­mit­tee chairs have come out against the bill. Harry Re­id is said to be against it, too. That leaves nearly 30 Sen­ate Dems un­ac­coun­ted for.

He called the “con­spicu­ous pub­lic si­lence” of Demo­crats a sign “of just how cau­tious Dems are be­ing about the do­mest­ic polit­ics of ne­go­ti­at­ing with Ir­an right now.”

Obama dithered and stumbled on Syr­ia, but his in­stincts were right: Avoid blood­shed if at all pos­sible. He is act­ing prudently on Ir­an. He is the com­mand­er in chief, and you’d ex­pect fel­low Demo­crats to give him the be­ne­fit of the doubt. Is the Demo­crat­ic op­pos­i­tion to Obama based on the mer­its or born of polit­ic­al cal­cu­la­tion? If it’s the former, way­ward Demo­crats had bet­ter be right, be­cause the stakes are high. If it’s the lat­ter, shame on them and their “an­ti­war” party.

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