Fait Non-Accompli

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The Iran deal turns out to be so no good, so very bad, so awfully ugly, that there is a chance—an outside chance—that a congressional process accepted by the administration because it seemed to virtually guarantee the deal’s survival might actually kill it instead.

The administration is pulling out all the stops. The left is mobilizing. Pressure is being applied. But what’s striking is how many congressional Democrats are balking. Serious Democrats look at the deal—at its failure to stop Iran’s nuclear program, at the weak verification provisions, at the precipitous and massive sanctions relief—and can’t quite believe the horror the administration is asking them to approve.

The public can’t quite believe it either. The Pew poll this week had those Americans who knew something about the deal—a strikingly high 79 percent of the public—disapproving 48 to 38 percent. When has this happened before? A president signs a deal that purports to limit arms and reduce the risks of war, he makes his case to the American people against scattered voices of criticism and dissent—and he doesn’t even start out ahead. A Washington Post poll that framed the deal in a way more favorable to the administration had only 56 percent approval. Most analysts experienced in these kinds of fights expected the deal to start out way ahead in public opinion, and then perhaps face some erosion as the debate proceeded. Instead, opponents are at least even at the start. And, by the way, the critics are so far handily winning the debate on the merits.

Still, is it really possible that over a dozen Senate Democrats and almost 50 House Democrats will defect from the president and vote both to disapprove and then to override his veto? Yes. It’s possible, if not yet likely. And the possibility will grow if opponents energetically press their case. They will need to explain, among other things, that the sanctions regime isn’t doomed if the deal is defeated. It is true that some damage will have been done by the United Nations action. But a Congress that insists on retaining U.S. sanctions will leave the next president—whether a Democrat or a Republican—with a chance to marshal the international community to continue the pressure on Iran and perhaps to negotiate a better deal.

Meanwhile, what about that U.N. vote? Congress owes it to the American people to disapprove the deal because it is bad and dangerous, but also precisely to establish the principle that the American people are the masters of American foreign policy, not the United Nations.

The question, then, is pretty simple: Will some significant part of the Democratic party rise to the occasion? One of the five Democratic presidential candidates, former Virginia senator Jim Webb, seems likely to oppose the deal. He was and remains a bitter critic of the Iraq war, and he opposed it as it was being debated—unlike Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Biden. He also has a long record of acting to engage outlaw regimes, from Vietnam to Burma. He’s not against diplomacy, and he’s certainly not for war. But he’s very doubtful of this deal. How many of his fellow Democrats will join him in taking a serious look at the merits?

We hope many will. William Fulbright and Eugene McCarthy broke with a Democratic president over Vietnam. Scoop Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan broke with a Democratic president on the strategic arms agreement with the Soviet Union. From left and right, there is a history of some Democrats in Congress doing the right thing, and of being favorably regarded by history for having done so.

And while Winston Churchill is more of a hero to Republicans than to Democrats, there is bipartisan admiration for his lonely fight against appeasement in the late 1930s. That fight, we should remember, was against a government of his own party. So it is congressional Democrats, at this crucial moment, who have a chance to be Churchillian.

We urge them, sincerely, to rise above party loyalty, to rise above their distaste for people like us who are among the opponents of the deal, and to act for America. And we urge critics of the deal on our side of the aisle not to give up ahead of time on the hope of success.

One more consideration for Democrats who, understandably, are concerned with their party’s future as well as the country’s: If this deal goes into effect, it won’t wear well. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she and her party will be held responsible for every advance Iran makes in nuclear and missile technology, for every Iranian-backed terror attack and Iranian-backed proxy wreaking havoc in the Middle East with the new infusion of cash the deal has provided, for every instance of Iranian bellicosity, rhetorical and otherwise, that this deal will have encouraged.

If this deal is defeated by a bipartisan vote, on the other hand, it will be a rebuke to President Obama, but it would give the Democratic candidate a clean slate on which to sketch her own Iran policy going forward. Her party will still be the less interventionist party. But it will have Churchillian elements in it. It will be stronger than it would otherwise be.

A significant number of congressional Democrats rising in opposition to President Obama is actually not in the interest of the Republican party or the Republican nominee. But it would be in the interest of the country.

 

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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