Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Executive finesse

Updated 4/18
Finesse and Reptile, via ComicVine.

Obama Yields, Allowing Congress Say on Iran Nuclear Deal

says the New York Times, but between you and me, BooMan captured the story a little more accurately: Senator Corker got rolled. I say "between you and me" because it wouldn't be really helpful for Corker to understand this just at present, or (more likely) be compelled to acknowledge in public that he understands it. A huge part of the art of negotiation as our president understands it is to leave the other person thinking that she or he has won, at least for the short term.

Let me, as Friedman would say, explain.

The Congress has never been willing to play its constitutional role in stopping presidents from making wars, but the Senate has long extremely jealous, as I guess Jon Stewart was saying, of its prerogative in stopping them from making peace, shooting down such dangerously pacific developments as the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations, the International Trade Organization, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, SALT II, and the Law of the Sea (thanks for trying, Hillary). Am I forgetting the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines? Nah, that one wasn't the Senate's fault, the Clinton White House agreed in principle but couldn't stand giving up the Korean ones ("They're so cute," Secretary Albright did not say).

Meanwhile, of course, the presidency has been developing workarounds over the decades, in particular using executive orders, in order to implement its wickedly unmilitary designs, and thus the Obama White House began its most recent push to work out a deal on the Iranian civilian nuclear program (which could conceivably become a military program at some time in the future, though there has not been any evidence in years that it is in any way likely to), and Senate Majority Leader Netanyahu and his minions grew more and more agitated.

What Iran wants in return for making itself technically unable to build a nuclear weapon is an end to the sanctions imposed on it by Western Europe and Russia and China and the United States, and this is where the Senate has leverage: the US portion of those sanctions was imposed, necessarily, by Congress, not by executive action, and only Congress can remove them from the books. This doesn't mean the administration can't lift them temporarily, but Congress ought to be able to stop them. So Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker and Senator Menendez (now, owing to his legal troubles, replaced as Ranking Member on the Foreign Relations Committee by Benjamin Cardin of Maryland) have been drafting legislation to do that, in the event they don't like the agreement that is hoped for in June.

The bill was designed, in fact, not so much to prevent sanctions from being lifted as to stop the agreement from being negotiated, which is not the same thing. After the agreement was signed in June by the parties, a 60-day freeze on the lifting of sanctions was to be imposed while Congress made up its august mind whether to approve of it or not, which would probably cause the Iranians to leave the negotiations altogether; and the administration would have to certify every 90 days that Iran had not supported an act of terrorism against the US anywhere in the world—which would definitely drive Iran away.

Then Cardin began working on making the bill easier for Democrats to vote for, reducing the freeze period to 30 days and eliminating the terrorism certification, and the administration began signaling they didn't mind that so much, and the Foreign Relations Committee deal was made. The Senate will still do that vote after the 30 days are over, but if they vote to disapprove the bill, the president can veto that, and the Senate won't have enough votes to stop it.

When you think about it, the constitutional provisions on treaties reverse the relation between the two Branches: the president legislates, in putting together a treaty, which is to be the law of the land, and the Senate executes, by giving or withholding its consent. The form of the Corker-Cardin deal just takes that a logical step further, giving the Senate effectively a veto power that the president can try to override. I think that's cool!

The main thing, though, is that the agreement with Iran won't have been stopped, and that is a really good thing, though embarrassing for those Republicans who hoped to stop it. Jim Newell for Salon clarifies just how much of a victory for Obama in his ability to sustain the ongoing negotiations it is:
The White House’s acceptance of the newly watered-down but not completely “benign” version of Corker-Menendez at least lets it signal to Iran that it has our political drama under control. It might require a flexible interpretation of events, but the administration can now say: there was a bad bill, but we were able to defang its worst provisions. You can trust this administration to keep our domestic meddling in check.
Update 4/18/2015: Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss agrees, and apparently so do the Republicans; Dr. Kristol and Senator Rubio are starting to get upset.

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