I think most Americans instinctively understand that most of politics is theater. That’s part of the reason why Donald Trump’s unpredictable stand-up act is so popular since we never know what he will say. But Congress is doing its part too to keep us entertained. That’s the only way to interpret the hearing held today by the House Oversight Committee. The reason for this hearing was the continuing fallout over the New York Times Magazine profile of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes in which he boasted of having successfully spun a docile Washington press corps into helping the administration sell its Iran policy. While Republicans led by Representative Jason Chaffetz wanted to use the session to explore the topic of how the Obama administration misled the American people about the Iran deal, committee Democrats preferred to use their time talking about whether the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq was based on lies. The result was another pointless partisan brawl the only purpose of which was to reassure each party’s base that House members were doing their best to make the other side uncomfortable.
In other words, it was business as usual on the Hill. But before we file this dispiriting piece of political theater in the proverbial circular file, it’s important to point out that the topic of the path to appeasement on Iran is one that I think future historians will view with more seriousness. Ultimately, that may mean Rhodes could go down as one of his generation’s “guilty men,” a title that was given to those British politicians that enabled appeasement of Nazi Germany before World War Two. Whether that it is true or not will depend on whether the administration’s long shot bet on the Islamist regime in Iran moderating before it ultimately gets a nuclear weapon after the deal Rhodes championed expires in a decade. If it doesn’t — and there’s little reason other than wishful thinking to believe that it will — we will view exhibitions such this House hearing with even less tolerance than we to today. But before we get to that point, it’s important to point out exactly what Rhodes is guilty of and what responsibility Congress — both Republicans and Democrats — must shoulder for that result.
Let’s first be clear about what Rhodes — who refused to testify before the committee on dubious grounds that it is inappropriate for a presidential advisor to discuss his work with Congress — did and not do. Since the Times profile, there’s been a lot of talk about the administration’s lies about Iran, and some of those accusations are accurate. The administration did lie about its diplomatic pursuit of Iran in 2013 as well as about the premise for those talks being the nonsensical proposition that the election of a “moderate” as president of Iran. Hassan Rouhani is no moderate but, as we now know, President Obama began the initiative while the even less moderate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in that office, serving as did his successor at the pleasure of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But while the Times article did speak of the administration misleading the American people, all that Rhodes admitted to in a piece that was both revealing as well as evidence of the trademark arrogance of Obama’s inner circle, was manipulating the press.
Critics of the Iran deal have much to complain about what happened during the course of the negotiations and the string of deceptions that were carried out by various administration figures. President Obama had promised during his 2012 re-election program that any deal end Iran’s nuclear program rather than giving it international approval and setting it up being able to produce a weapon within a decade. There was also much said by senior officials that wasn’t true about the type of inspections that would be used to enforce the deal as well as forcing Iran to divulge all information about its past nuclear efforts.
But we must also acknowledge that the basic truth about the deal was no secret. Indeed, that’s why clear majorities of both Houses of Congress and, according to opinion polls, the American people, opposed the agreement. All of the lies told by the administration were not enough to convince Congress or the people that this was a wise course of action. And, had what amounted to the most important foreign policy treaty been submitted to Congress according to the procedure required by the Constitution, it would never have come close to passing.
But when we ponder that fact, we must also acknowledge that not all the guilty men and women with respect to Iran served in the White House or the State Department. The fact is the legislative branch let President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry get away with treating this treaty as if it were an administrative decision that didn’t require Congressional approval.
Granted, it would have been difficult if not impossible to stop them from doing so. But the same Republican Congress that took the country to the brink over defunding ObamaCare and almost did the same thing about Planned Parenthood funding backed down when it came to defending their constitutional obligations on a matter of life and death like letting Iran keep its nuclear program. Responsibility for that decision belonged in no small measure to the Republican leaders of the two chambers. But special opprobrium should be directed at Senator Bob Corker, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, who was rolled by the administration and his Democratic colleagues when he agreed to a bill that would give Congress a vote on the deal as if it were a simple piece of legislation. That meant that instead of a two-thirds vote in order to pass it, as the Constitution requires, it was able to survive with the one-third plus one votes needed to sustain a veto or the 40 votes needed to sustain a filibuster in the Senate. In the end, the effort to stop the deal died because of a filibuster carried out by Senate Democrats, all of whom had previously voted to ensure that Congress had some sort of say about this crucial decision.
Corker, who is supposedly under consideration as a possible choice to run for vice president with Donald Trump, deserves a lot of the blame for what happened last year. So do the rank and file Republicans and Democrats that didn’t rise up and demand that this deeply unpopular measure be stopped. Today’s piece of theater notwithstanding, if the worst happens and Iran gets a bomb, everyone who was in Washington last year will be asked what they did to stop the deal, and few will be completely blameless.
As I noted last week, there will be real long term consequence of the Iran deal lies that have nothing to do with scoring political points. But while Rhodes deserves to be upbraided for his lies, let’s not kid ourselves about what happened. There was no shortage of information about what a bad deal had been negotiated. All the White House spin couldn’t silence the critics nor was it ever enough to convince most Americans that they were right. What was lacking was a Congress that was prepared to act on the information they did have. Rhodes’ earned himself a place in history as a principle author of a travesty that could lead to putting a bomb in the hands of a genocidal anti-Semitic Islamist regime. But Rhodes is not the only one that ought to be ashamed. If Representative Chaffetz wants to put anyone on the spot, he should also include those members of the Senate who were Obama’s willing dupes.