The Parties’ Role Reversal on “Interfering” with the Commander-in-Chief’s Foreign Policy

Congressional Democrats meddled in foreign policy, too. Now they hypocritically decry Republicans for doing so.

Senate Republicans, obsessed as always with carrying out the agenda of the Israeli government and leading the U.S. into more militarism and war, yesterday wrote a letter to “the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” designed to derail an international agreement governing that country’s nuclear program. Numerous leading Democrats — in Congress and the media — are today using the language of criminality, sedition and even treason to denounce that letter, insisting that it is a violation of American “norms” and possibly American law for members of Congress to “undermine” the president’s conduct of foreign policy and diplomacy.

Harry Reid, sounding (as usual) like the love child of George Bush and Joe Lieberman, said: “Republicans are undermining our commander in chief while empowering the ayatollahs.” The New York Daily News put mugshot-like photos of four of the GOP signatories above the headline “TRAITORS.” The Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore called it “sedition in the name of patriotism.” The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman said it is “appalling” because it shows Republicans “can act as though Barack Obama isn’t even the president of the United States.” The most predictably hackish party apparatchiks over at MSNBC accused Republicans of “conducting their own parallel, freelance foreign policy” and argued that felony charges should be considered under the Logan Act.

GOP efforts to sabotage a peace deal with Iran are heinous on the substance: the combination of dogmatic religious fervor for Israel, a cartoon-like Manichean view of the world, and a bottomless thirst for war continues to lead them to a commitment to rogue militarism — though there are plenty of Democrats who share all of those views. Tom Cotton, the prime author of the letter, is at least as much a dangerous religious fanatic as anyone in the Iranian government, and certainly a more militaristic one. (And just by the way, Rand Paul’s signing of the Cotton letter further exposes what a shallow fraud is his pretense to having some sort of heterodox foreign policy positions).

But on the “decorum” question — whether there has been some sort of terrible or possibly criminal breach of protocol due to GOP interference with Obama’s foreign policy — the irony and hypocrisy here are infinite. Most similar controversies from the past involved prominent Democrats engaging in discussions with foreign leaders which Republicans pilloried as a dangerous and possibly criminal threat to the GOP president’s power to carry out foreign policy. Indeed, it was a staple of the Bush-era debates for Republicans to accuse Democrats of undue and unconstitutional “interference” in President Bush’s constitutional power to carry out foreign policy.

To see how thoroughly Democrats have adopted the GOP’s Bush-era authoritarian rhetoric about not “undermining the commander-in-chief,” and to see how craven is GOP behavior now on Iran, just look at what was being said in 2007 when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Syria and met with President Bashar Assad. The Bush administration was furious about that meeting because its strategy at the time was to isolate Assad as punishment for his alleged aid to Iraqi insurgents fighting against U.S. occupying forces, and the right-wing media and even mainstream media precincts attacked Pelosi in ways quite redolent of today’s attacks on the Senate Republicans over Iran.

In April, 2007, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by right-wing law professor Robert Turner, headlined “Illegal Diplomacy,” declaring that “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may well have committed a felony in traveling to Damascus this week, against the wishes of the president, to communicate on foreign-policy issues with Syrian President Bashar Assad.”

Dick Cheney called Pelosi’s trip “bad behavior” and said in an interview with Rush Limbaugh: “The president is the one who conducts foreign policy, not the speaker of the House.” Writing in National Review, then-Minority Whip Eric Cantor complained that “Mrs. Pelosi usurped the executive branch’s time-honored foreign-policy authority”; “at such a critical moment in the volatile Middle East,” he inveighed, “this is no time for the United States to be sending out mixed signals to our enemies.” The right-wing extremist Congressman Steve King actually introduced legislation to bar Pelosi from traveling to “terrorist states,” arguing:

The Speaker of the House is not the President of the United States. Nancy Pelosi does not represent the Administration. In fact, her policy positions seek to contravene the foreign policy of the United States. Nancy Pelosi, by defying the specific request of the administration to refrain from traveling to Syria, blatantly infringed upon the Constitutional duties of the President. Additionally, I believe her trip was the most blatant violation of the Logan Act by a top elected official in the history of our country. . . . Nancy Pelosi thinks it’s her job to conduct foreign policy in defiance of the President. She is wrong on the Constitution and wrong on the law.

National Review’s Andrew McCarthy pronounced that “there isn’t much question that Speaker Pelosi has committed a felony violation of the Logan Act,” and that “it is settled beyond peradventure that the authority of the United States over the conduct of foreign relations rests exclusively with the executive branch.” He added:

So the Bush administration is in charge of foreign relations. It has a policy of attempting to isolate the rogue Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. Far from authorizing Speaker Pelosi’s visit with Assad, the president asked her not to go. Pelosi went anyway, and proceeded to embarrass herself and our nation by meddling ineptly in the Syrian/Israeli conflict, concurrently giving the despicable Assad just the lifeline our policy has sought to deny him. As the Logan Act goes, it doesn’t get more black-and-white than that.

The New York Post concluded its scathing editorial attack on Pelosi’s trip, entitled “Nancy’s Nonsense,” by declaring: “Negotiating with world leaders — particularly those at odds with the United States — should be left to the president, or those authorized by him to do so.” USA Today headlined its editorial “Pelosi Steps Out of Bounds,” arguing that “she violated a long-held understanding that the United States should speak with one official voice abroad — even if the country is deeply divided on foreign policy back home,” and accused the Speaker of knowingly undermining Bush’s right to run U.S. foreign policy:

Pelosi surely knew that as speaker — third in the succession line to the presidency — her high-profile presence in Damascus would be read as a contradiction of Bush’s no-talk policy. No matter that she claimed to have stuck closely to administration positions in her conversations with Assad, smiling photos of Pelosi and the Syrian president convey the unspoken message that while the U.S. president is unwilling to talk with Syria, another wing of the government is. Assad made good use of the moment.

Even the New York Times editorial page, by then constant critics of Bush’s foreign policy, wrote: “there is at least one point on which we and the critics of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Damascus can agree: It is the White House, not the speaker of the House, that should be taking the diplomatic lead.” They added: “Her job is to spur the Bush administration to pursue active diplomacy, not to attempt to conduct that diplomacy herself.”

More broadly, it became conventional wisdom that Pelosi’s trip was really about undermining Bush’s legitimate authority as president and creating a “shadow foreign policy” run by the Democrats. Sound familiar?

The Washington Post editorial page viciously attacked Pelosi’s trip, arguing that “Ms. Pelosi’s attempt to establish a shadow presidency is not only counterproductive, it is foolish”; the Editors added that the Speaker offered “an excellent demonstration yesterday of why members of Congress should not attempt to supplant the secretary of state” and that “the really striking development here is the attempt by a Democratic congressional leader to substitute her own foreign policy for that of a sitting Republican president.” Wall Street Journal editor Dan Henniger said Pelosi has “a larger strategy in mind here . . . fundamentally what they are trying to achieve is a diminished executive, a weakened presidency.” His colleague Paul Gigot added: “That sounds like they are trying to run foreign policy from Congress.” Three years earlier, in his speech at the 2004 GOP Convention, Zell Miller sounded the same theme by arguing that opposition to the Iraq War was inherently illegitimate because it was about nothing more than “Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our Commander in Chief.”

A prior visit by Pelosi a few months earlier to Iraq led Associated Press to say that the trip “is a clear sign the newly empowered Democratic Congress is not going to abide by the notion that foreign policy is the sole province of the White House.” The headline of that article was “Pelosi visit to Baghdad signals Bush he’s not making foreign policy all alone,” and it recounted the numerous incidents in the past where members of Congress and others were accused of “interfering” in the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy in language similar to what Democrats are using now against Republicans:

[S]ome [Bush] administration allies have accused four senators — Democrats John Kerry of Massachusetts, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — of engaging in such freelance diplomacy by going to Syria in December to sound out President Bashar Assad on his intentions on Iraq and Lebanon.

The Clinton administration chafed in 1999 at separate diplomatic efforts by civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and by a group of U.S. and Russian legislators led by then-Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., to strike a peace deal to end the conflict in Yugoslavia.

Former President Carter’s freelance mission to North Korea in 1994 to nail down a nuclear deal with Pyongyang was praised by the Clinton White House at the time, but it helped complicate later U.S. dealings with North Korea.

The GOP reaction was even more strident when then-Congressman Dennis Kucinich criticized the Iraq War on Middle East television in 2007 after meeting with Assad. About that controversy, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that “words like ‘traitor’ and ‘treason’ have been liberally bandied about on television and talk radio,” and it quoted Republican Peter King as saying this on Fox News: “You cannot have American congressmen, American senators going overseas to an enemy, which Syria is, and denouncing our policies.”

For their part, Democrats, needless to say, thought it was perfectly legitimate for members of Congress to act in opposition to Bush’s foreign policy. In Salon, Joe Conason mocked “the screaming critics of the speaker [who] charge her with undermining presidential power [and] freelancing Mideast diplomacy,” insisting that “those furious complaints were all false and, more important, beside the point.” He said that Republicans “can only smear those who, like Speaker Pelosi, are attempting to promote a bipartisan alternative” and concluded: “Let us hope she possesses the courage to continue that crucial mission.”

There are distinctions between Pelosi’s Assad meeting and the GOP letter to Iran. One Republican accompanied Pelosi; other Republicans had previously visited Assad; the Bipartisan Study Group and State Department had specifically recommended such trips; and at least publicly, Pelosi was insisting (albeit unconvincingly) that there were no real differences between her policy views and the administration’s. Moreover, as House Speaker, she was third in line to the presidency after the vice president, giving her modestly more claim to act in the foreign policy realm than, say, random members of Congress.

Still, the reason I so vividly remember the 2007 controversy over the Pelosi trip is because it was part of this constant Bush-era effort to demand that the president was the sole authority on foreign policy, and that attempts by members of Congress to “interfere” with his actions were illegitimate, possibly illegal, and likely treasonous, because few things are worse than, as Joe Lieberman put it, undermining the Commander-in-Chief (and just by the way, if you’re a citizen who is not in the military, the president is not your “Commander-in-Chief”). In 2007, Lieberman accused Democratic Senators opposing Bush’s Iraq policy of “giv[ing] the enemy some comfort.” Republicans constantly insisted (except when the president is a Democrat) that there was only one proper foreign policy leader — the Commander-in-Chief — not 535 of them, and that interfering with his foreign policy and diplomatic authority was unconstitutional and subversive.

That mentality and rhetoric are no less offensive when used by Democrats today than it was when it was being spewed by Republicans for the entire Bush presidency. And the “treason” rhetoric now being spouted by Democrats is part of a broader embrace by many of them in the Obama era of the worst rhetorical excesses of Bush-era Republicans.

The numerous members of both parties who are trying to subvert a peace agreement with Iran — out of some warped allegiance to Israeli interests and/or a commitment to endless militarism — are acting in destructive and dangerous ways. That substantive issue is the ground on which they merit great criticism. That they have disrespected and undermined our Glorious Commander-in-Chief, or breached precious inter-court protocols for who gets to exercise power, are, at best, ancillary positions, and as expressed, are quite misguided ones.

Photo:  Hussein Malla/AP

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