Cleaning up Tom Cotton's mess: Why conservatives' excuses just aren't credible

WaPo columnist Michael Gerson tries to defend Cotton's goals, if not tactics. That's not such a simple task

Published March 13, 2015 6:04PM (EDT)

  (Danny Johnston)
(Danny Johnston)

Here come the alleged GOP adults to clean up Sen. Tom Cotton's mess.

The Washington Post's Michael Gerson, one of those torture-defending followers of Jesus Christ from the George W. Bush administration, provides a nice summary of the crisis-management talking points in his column today.

First: Tom Cotton's dumb letter to Iran, signed by him and 46 of his Senate Republican colleagues, is President Obama's fault.

It is true that President Obama set this little drama in motion. Major arms-control treaties have traditionally involved advice and consent by the Senate. Obama is proposing to expand the practice of executive agreements to cover his prospective Iranian deal — effectively cutting senators out of the process. By renewing a long-standing balance-of-powers debate — in a way that highlights his propensity for power-grabbiness — Obama invited resistance.

Second: Cotton and his well-intentioned fellow senators should make their case for congressional approval to their constituents, not to Ayatollah Khamenei: "If Republican senators want to make the point that an Iran deal requires a treaty, they should make that case to the American people, not to the Iranians."

Third: These actions -- the Netanyahu invitation, the fast-tracking of Iran legislation, and now the Cotton letter -- though obviously noble in their genesis, merely lose the Republican leaders once-winnable Democratic votes for blowing up negotiations. "Peeling even a few Democrats off the Corker/Menendez approach could prove decisive. If the Corker bill fails narrowly, Obama might have Cotton’s missive to thank." This is a point that yours truly has been making on the website Salon Dot Com many times.

Not a bad spit-shine from Gerson on this basically unredeemable missive: It was Obama who set it in motion, and he is a terrible negotiator, and Iran is evil... but the Cotton letter was perhaps a tactical error.

But then gritty, tactical political realist Michael Gerson divulges some fantastical notions of his own.

"The Cotton letter creates the impression that Senate Republicans are rooting for negotiations to fail," Gerson writes, "which would complicate our attempt to maintain strong sanctions if negotiations end up failing."

I was not privy to seeing Michael Gerson's facial expression as he wrote this, but hopefully it was one of shame. The Cotton letter "creates the impression that Senate Republicans are rooting for negotiations to fail" because Senate Republicans, and House Republicans, and all Republicans with national aspirations are rooting for negotiations to fail. Maybe they're not all quite as explicit as Cotton himself is toward this end, but... maybe they are? Did Michael Gerson catch any of the "Conservative Political Action Conference"? That was the recent event when every Republican who spoke condemned the broad outlines of a reported deal as unacceptable. The whole point of the two Iran-related bills before Congress to sabotage negotiations is to sabotage negotiations. The goal of the Republican party is to see that these negotiations go nowhere, because they dislike the contours of what's being negotiated. They are welcome to hold that opinion, but they should admit it. Most of them are admitting it. Michael Gerson should consider admitting it as well.

Gerson also attempts to thread the impossible-to-thread "we don't want war with Iran, we want a better deal!" needle.

A final objection to the Cotton letter concerns not institutional positioning but grand strategy. The alternative to a bad nuclear deal is not war; it is strong sanctions and covert actions to limit Iranian capacities until the regime falls (as it came close to doing in 2009) or demonstrates behavior change in a variety of areas. But this approach depends on the tightening of sanctions in cooperation with Europe, as well as Russia and China. And this effort can be held together only by the impression that the United States has negotiated with Iran in good faith.

Hoo boy. It's going to be mighty difficult to convince Europe, Russia, China, and every other country worth its salt that the United States is negotiating with Iran "in good faith" if we state that our goal is regime change. (Or get Iran to "demonstrate behavior change in a variety of areas," by which conservatives generally mean getting the Iranian regime to comprehensively abandon all of its regional interests in favor of ours. This is the unicorn-like "better deal" that we're told the U.S. should hold out for: forcing Iran to agree to stop acting like... a country.)

It's bewildering that these hawks who fancy themselves clear-eyed realists about the nature of the Iranians somehow think that the Islamic Republic of Iran is always only a gentle shove away from collapse. Gerson maintains the convenient alternate-history that the regime "came close" to falling in 2009, and that it probably would have if the Obama administration had been a little more assertive. I certainly remember a lot of people shading their Twitter and Facebook avatars green in 2009 to show support for the protesters, but this didn't mean that the protesters had much of a chance, or even demonstrated the prevailing will of the Iranian people. The government took care of the protests pretty quickly, and had the United States jumped whole-hog behind the protesters, it may have even been quicker. The Obama administration didn't choose to keep the conflict at arms-length (publicly, at least) because it was in love with Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It did so because an overt display of American meddling would have handed the regime an important propaganda victory in a country where memories of the 1953 CIA-driven coup still linger quite strongly.

Recent evidence, namely the Iraq war, points to the sanctions-until-regime-collapse model leading to military conflict. Sanctions were leveled against Saddam Hussein's regime for over a decade. Saddam didn't go anywhere, though a lot of children did die of starvation. So we got frustrated and decided that we might as well get it over with. The Obama administration is trying to do something more modest with Iran. If sanctions can be useful enough to take our main gripe with Iran off the table for a while, then that's progress. Can't we live with progress?

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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