Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bob Corker

Is Obama Winning the Fight Against More Iran Sanctions?

Yesterday, backers of increased sanctions on Iran scored an important victory when Senator Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate pledged that he would back the bill being circulated by Republican Mark Kirk. The bill, which would effectively shut down Iran’s oil trade if the current nuclear negotiations fail, already has enough votes to pass in the Senate as well as in the House of Representatives. But it needs significant Democratic support in order to override President Obama’s threatened veto of the legislation. But, as Politico reports, the full-court press against the bill being carried out by the White House is having an impact on the Democratic caucus, even among those who backed the same bill last year. Though the GOP’s gain of nine seats last November should have improved the chances of success, it appears that pressure from Obama is causing even some stalwart friends of Israel to drop out or to express reluctance to vote against the administration. If this trend continues, the president may get the blank congressional check he needs to pursue a policy of détente with Tehran that will effectively allow it to become a threshold nuclear power.

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Yesterday, backers of increased sanctions on Iran scored an important victory when Senator Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate pledged that he would back the bill being circulated by Republican Mark Kirk. The bill, which would effectively shut down Iran’s oil trade if the current nuclear negotiations fail, already has enough votes to pass in the Senate as well as in the House of Representatives. But it needs significant Democratic support in order to override President Obama’s threatened veto of the legislation. But, as Politico reports, the full-court press against the bill being carried out by the White House is having an impact on the Democratic caucus, even among those who backed the same bill last year. Though the GOP’s gain of nine seats last November should have improved the chances of success, it appears that pressure from Obama is causing even some stalwart friends of Israel to drop out or to express reluctance to vote against the administration. If this trend continues, the president may get the blank congressional check he needs to pursue a policy of détente with Tehran that will effectively allow it to become a threshold nuclear power.

Part of the problem that Kirk is encountering is a rival, much weaker Iran bill proposed by Senate Foreign Relations chair Bob Corker. The Tennessee Republican is actually far less eager for a confrontation with Obama than his Democratic predecessor, Robert Menendez, who challenged the president face to face on the issue two weeks ago. His bill would rightly demand that Congress be allowed a vote on any nuclear deal with Iran. But it would do nothing to increase sanctions, as the Kirk bill would, if the talks collapsed. The Kirk bill would increase pressure on the Iranians to make a deal rather than letting them continue to prevaricate and wait out the West while it moved closer to its nuclear goal.

The overwhelming majority of both Houses back the concept of tougher sanctions, but a bill sponsored by Kirk and Menendez died last year because of procedural tactics by former Majority Leader Harry Reid and efforts by Obama to label its advocates as warmongers. Reid can no longer bury bills the president doesn’t like, but his efforts to persuade Democrats to stick with him seem to be working. As Politico notes, former supporters like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin are backing away from the Kirk bill. Others, like Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, who has always promoted himself as an ardent backer of Israel—whose existence is threatened by an Iranian nuke—is making noises about his need to think about it rather than jumping in to support the bill. Indeed, even Schumer says his backing for Kirk is contingent on other Democrats joining him to provide cover for his stand. Menendez, though he said earlier this week that administration arguments against sanctions sounded like they were “talking points” from Iran, is also reportedly not yet committed to co-sponsoring the Kirk bill.

Nevertheless, there was some encouraging news today when it was learned that ten Democrats, including Schumer, Casey and Manchin, sent a letter to the president stating they would vote for Kirk’s sanctions if a satisfactory nuclear isn’t reached by March 24. Since the odds of that happening are slim, that will set the stage for a climactic fight the outcome of which is hard to predict.

But while most Democrats are trying to avoid being pinned down on the question of sanctions, the stakes involved in this question couldn’t be higher.

President Obama was able to fend off more sanctions a year ago by claiming that he needed time to follow up on the interim deal he had signed in November 2013 and persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear ambitions. That negotiating period was supposed to be limited to six months to prevent the Iranians from playing their usual delaying games. But instead of pressuring Tehran to give up its nukes, the president allowed that deadline to pass without consequences to the Islamist regime. Two extensions have been granted for the talks to continue and it appears that the White House is on track to ask for a third after the current period expires in June. Indeed, it is not clear if even another year of fruitless negotiations passed without result that Obama would concede that the process had failed.

The Iranians are being obdurate because the president has clearly signaled in the interim agreement and the subsequent talks that he won’t insist on them giving up their nuclear infrastructure. Thus emboldened, they feel free to stand their ground and to insist on a Western surrender. Since Obama’s purpose is more to bring about a doubtful reconciliation between Washington and Tehran rather than a halt to their nuclear work, the Islamists think they can stall until he gives up or they arrive at a point where it is clear that they can build a bomb if they want one.

That’s why Obama is so worried about spooking the Iranians by threats of future sanctions that would only strengthen his hands in the talks. His opposition to more sanctions is illogical unless you realize that his purpose is very different from that of sanctions advocates. Though he and his apologists in the media claim sanctions advocates want diplomacy to fail, in fact it is just the opposite. His Senate opponents want diplomacy to succeed in ending the Iranian nuclear threat. The president wants diplomacy to effectively table Western and Israeli concerns about Iran’s nuclear goal as well as its role as a state sponsor of terrorism in order to bring about an entente which will relieve Obama of the obligation to resist Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony.

Thus, the analogy drawn between sanctions opponents and Iranian hardliners who are opposing the talks because they don’t want any limitations on their nuclear program—as a New York Times article falsely attempts to assert—is as absurd as it is misleading.

This crisis in the push for sanctions may motivate some to think that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plans to speak to Congress in March is even more necessary than many thought. But diverting the discussion from Iran’s nuclear threat to Netanyahu’s personal challenge to Obama has only made it easier for the president to pick off wavering Democrats who don’t want to be caught between the two world leaders.

But whatever Netanyahu decides to do, this is the moment when pro-Israel Democrats need to step up and show members of the Senate that more sanctions are not an issue on which they will be given a pass. Neither the Corker bill nor the president’s calls for party loyalty should be allowed to divert the Senate from its duty to increase pressure on Iran before it is too late to save the diplomatic option. If the Kirk bill stalls or it fails to receive enough Democratic support to override Obama’s veto threat, the only winners will be in Tehran.

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Intelligence Agencies Can’t Have Their Own Foreign Policies

Yesterday, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, that indispensable team of foreign-policy reporters, wrote in Bloomberg View that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency had “gone rogue” and was actively seeking to undermine its government’s stand on Iran sanctions. Today, a denial was issued by the head of the spy agency, Tamir Pardo, who said in a statement that he never told U.S. senators visiting Israel that he opposes additional sanctions on Iran. What’s going on here? As the fight between the Obama administration and congressional advocates of more sanctions on Iran heats up, the injection of this “rogue” element into the discussion tells us more about the political implications of this battle, both in the Senate and in Israel, than it does about the merits of the issue.

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Yesterday, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, that indispensable team of foreign-policy reporters, wrote in Bloomberg View that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency had “gone rogue” and was actively seeking to undermine its government’s stand on Iran sanctions. Today, a denial was issued by the head of the spy agency, Tamir Pardo, who said in a statement that he never told U.S. senators visiting Israel that he opposes additional sanctions on Iran. What’s going on here? As the fight between the Obama administration and congressional advocates of more sanctions on Iran heats up, the injection of this “rogue” element into the discussion tells us more about the political implications of this battle, both in the Senate and in Israel, than it does about the merits of the issue.

The first thing to understand about the sanctions debate is that the administration is desperate to stop the adoption of more sanctions. That’s not because, as the president claims, they will hurt the cause of diplomacy. That is an illogical, indeed, indefensible, assertion since the bill proposed by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez would only strengthen the president’s hand in the talks over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. If Iran really believed there would be serious consequences for its failure to agree to a deal (the sanctions would only go into effect once the talks failed), it would be more, not less likely to make a deal that might, in contrast to the interim deal signed in November 2013, actually halt their progress toward a bomb. But since Obama’s objective is clearly a new détente with the Islamist regime, his priority is keeping its leaders happy, not backing them into corner and forcing them to surrender their nuclear assets.

Thus, Israel’s interest in Congress adopting a new round of sanctions is clear. Why then are some people in its legendary spy agency speaking as if the Jewish state ought to agree with Obama’s stance? Again, it’s complicated. Israel’s army and intelligence establishment is as divided by politics as the rest of the country. Many in the upper echelon of the Mossad clearly dislike Netanyahu and have sought to undermine him in the past, particularly when a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities seemed to be more of a possibility in 2011 and 2012. That opposition was based more on the preference on the part of some of the spies for more covert activities as opposed to the overt use of force and not because they think Iran wasn’t a deadly threat to both Israel and the West. Similarly, today there are some disagreements as to whether diplomacy can or will succeed.

But the willingness of someone in the Mossad to deliver a message to visiting senators that contradicted the stand of their government is more a matter of the antipathy some there feel for the prime minister than to a belief that the threat of more sanctions will somehow scuttle diplomacy.

By the same token, the floating of this story is more about the effort of the administration and senators who oppose the Kirk-Menendez bill to halt its momentum. Among those under suspicion for trying to sandbag it are Senator Bob Corker, the new Republican chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, who is floating his own bill about Iran that wrongly ignores the need for more sanctions but which rightly tries to obligate the president to bring any new deal with Iran to Congress for approval. The competition between the two bills is, however, helping the administration oppose both of them but, not for the first time, Senate cloakroom intrigue appears to be taking precedence over the best interests of the nation and international security.

But the real danger at the heart of this tempest in a teapot is the fact that some in the intelligence field think their expertise entitles them to run freelance foreign-policy operations in opposition to their government’s policies.

Those members of the Mossad who are playing this game are not alone. Senior U.S. intelligence officials did the same thing in 2007 when they wrote and then leaked a National Intelligence Estimate about Iran’s nuclear program that made the astounding claim that Tehran had ceased working toward building a bomb, an assertion that contradicted the official stand of the Bush administration at the time. As it turned out the NIE was dead wrong and the details of the current talks about the extent of its infrastructure and stockpiles prove this. Like the Mossad leak this week, the chance to undermine Bush’s efforts to build support for sanctions against Iran or even the possibility of using force was too tempting for some intelligence personnel who despised the president.

But whatever you think about sanctions or Iran’s nuclear threat, the willingness of some intelligence workers to go around the government is not something that should be tolerated. Such leaks are not a case of whistleblowers calling attention to corruption. Rather, this is an attempt to circumvent the normal workings of democracy. When either spooks or soldiers try to shake loose of civilian supervision, for whatever reason, the system totters. No intelligence agency or a faction within one in a democracy can have its own foreign policy. That is the business of elected officials. If those officials don’t listen to the intelligence people, the latter can resign and bring their complaints to the people. But they may not operate as a government within a government if democracy is to prevail.

To its credit, the Mossad has now walked back the efforts of its “rogue” element and presented a united front with the Cabinet. The debate about sanctions can proceed and be decided, as it should, on the merits of the issue rather than internal Israeli politics or senatorial feuds. But no matter what happens, both Israelis and Americans should be worried about the willingness of spies to try and make or break the governments they’re supposed to serve.

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Menendez Stands Up to Obama on Iran. Will the GOP?

As the Republican leadership of Congress ponders whether they will challenge President Obama’s positions on a variety of issues, one member of the other party has just given them an object lesson in standing up to the White House. The question now is whether, for all of their brave talk about not being bulldozed by Obama, the GOP can muster the same courage to oppose him that was shown by a liberal Democrat.

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As the Republican leadership of Congress ponders whether they will challenge President Obama’s positions on a variety of issues, one member of the other party has just given them an object lesson in standing up to the White House. The question now is whether, for all of their brave talk about not being bulldozed by Obama, the GOP can muster the same courage to oppose him that was shown by a liberal Democrat.

Senator Robert Menendez was the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee when Democrats ran the Senate and is now its ranking minority member and is on most issues a reliable liberal vote. He was present when, during the course of the Senate Democrats Issue Conference, President Obama denigrated those who favored the passage of new, tougher sanctions on Iran. Not satisfied with claiming that they were wrong and that if they succeeded, it would result in the world blaming the United States and not Iran for the collapse of the talks, he then went further. Obama then said sanctions advocates were not merely ignoring the long view of the issue. He said they were merely seeking to appease donors to make short-term political gains.

When he heard this, Menendez, who has been the foremost advocate of increased sanctions on Iran, was reportedly seated at a table in front of the podium. He then rose to his feet and told the president he “took personal offense” at his remarks. Observers told the New York Times that what followed was “a forceful exchange.”

By all accounts, Menendez was polite and didn’t speak in anger. But he was not afraid to literally stand up and tell Obama that he was dead wrong about sanctions and their potential impact on the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. Neither side backed down but Obama left the conference knowing that a key Democrat could not be intimidated.

This is important not just because it shows that Obama faces vocal dissent against his attempt to appease Iran from Democrats. It is significant because it happened at a moment when the country is waiting to see whether the Republican who succeeded Menendez as Foreign Affairs Committee chair will have the guts to follow his example.

Senator Bob Corker has been deliberately ambiguous about whether he will push the bill co-sponsored by Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk that is currently being readied for presentation. At times Corker seems reluctant to directly challenge Obama on Iran.

Presidents deserve a degree of deference from Congress on foreign policy but the conduct of this administration on Iran cries out for Congressional intervention. Step by step the president’s original promises about any nuclear deal with Iran requiring the elimination of its program have unraveled. At every point in the negotiations, the U.S. has given up when Iran said no. In November 2013 that led to a weak agreement that allegedly froze Tehran’s nuclear progress in place but in practice did more to encourage the Iranians to believe that they had no reason to concede anything that would compromise their ability to become, at the very least, a threshold nuclear power.

If Menendez has no confidence in Obama’s intentions about Iran, he has good reason. He remembers very well that the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table were first watered down and then passed over the president’s objections. After the interim deal was signed, efforts to pass a bill that would toughen those sanctions if the next round of negotiations failed, were headed off by Obama’s veto threats, backed up former Majority Leader Harry Reid’s ability to stall any bill he didn’t like.

But any arguments that Obama had to be trusted on the talks have gone out the window as his pledge to limit the negotiations to a finite period were abandoned as the talks were extended twice with no consequences and the U.S. showing not the slightest intention to hold the Iranians accountable for stonewalling the process. As was the case during the prelude to the interim agreement, the U.S. is retreating to the point where Iran feels it has every confidence that it can hold onto all of its nuclear infrastructure and fuel stockpile while still getting sanctions relief.

The president said today in a joint news conference with British Prime David Cameron that the Iranians had no doubt that Obama could get Congress to pass more sanctions if the talks failed. That’s true. But that’s not what the new sanctions are trying to fix. The problem is that the Iranians have been given good reason to believe that Obama’s zeal for a deal is such that he will never concede that the talks have failed and will either let them go on indefinitely or will conclude a bad deal that does not prevent the Islamist regime from eventually realizing its nuclear ambition.

New sanctions will remind both Iran and Obama that the goal of these talks is not to create a new détente between the two countries, as the president seems to think is desirable, but to force the Islamists to give up any chance of getting a bomb in the foreseeable future.

Menendez rightly understand that it is the Senate’s duty to act expeditiously to ensure that Tehran understands that it will be held accountable for their so-far successful effort to run out the clock on the nuclear talks. He also knows that the drift toward Iran détente must be halted now before it is too late. That Obama would stoop so low as to question the motives of his opponents on this issue is a sign that he is worried about losing the upcoming fight over sanctions.

Senate Republicans must take heart from Menendez’s example. While they cannot fight every battle to the last ditch with Obama, this is one on which they can count on significant Democratic support. Corker should take up Menendez’s challenge. If he doesn’t, the Republican leadership should exert its influence to see to it that he doesn’t shame his party and fail the country.

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Senate Should Reject Power’s Lesson in Weak Iran Diplomacy

Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center in what was clearly intended as a shot fired over the bow of the new Republican Senate majority on the question of new sanctions on Iran. Any doubt about the purpose of the speech was reinforced by the presence of the majority leader after whom the public policy center is named. But Mitch McConnell and his Senate colleagues should ignore the ambassador’s attempt to pressure them to back off plans to toughen sanctions on the Islamist regime. In fact, rather than persuading them that the administration should be left to pursue détente with Tehran without congressional interference, her lecture should serve as a warning that they must act before President Obama’s foreign policy forfeits any chance of forestalling an Iranian bomb.

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Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center in what was clearly intended as a shot fired over the bow of the new Republican Senate majority on the question of new sanctions on Iran. Any doubt about the purpose of the speech was reinforced by the presence of the majority leader after whom the public policy center is named. But Mitch McConnell and his Senate colleagues should ignore the ambassador’s attempt to pressure them to back off plans to toughen sanctions on the Islamist regime. In fact, rather than persuading them that the administration should be left to pursue détente with Tehran without congressional interference, her lecture should serve as a warning that they must act before President Obama’s foreign policy forfeits any chance of forestalling an Iranian bomb.

Power’s case is the same one the administration has been making ever since it concluded a weak interim nuclear deal with Iran in November 2013. The administration threw away the considerable political, economic, and military leverage it held over Iran at the time in exchange for an agreement that tacitly recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium and granted legitimacy to the country’s nuclear program while loosening sanctions on the regime. In exchange, Iran supposedly froze its nuclear progress and converted its stockpile of fuel to a non-active state. This was to be followed by final-status talks that were supposed to be finite in length and therefore prevent Iran from drawing out negotiations in the same way they’ve been stalling the West on this issue for a decade.

Armed with what he termed a diplomatic success, President Obama successfully headed off an attempt by majorities in both houses of Congress last year to tighten the sanctions in such a way as to strengthen the hand of Western negotiators. The message then was that such help was not needed and would only scare off an Iranian government that was thought to be tempted to end its isolation by giving up their nuclear ambitions.

A year later Power was selling the same bill of goods to McConnell and his caucus telling them that more sanctions will not only spook the Iranians but isolate the U.S. from its Western coalition partners. Give us more time, she asked, and if we fail to get Iran to agree to a satisfactory agreement, then you could pass more sanctions.

Some in the Republican caucus may be inclined to heed her advice. Senator Bob Corker, the new Foreign Relations Committee chair, has been sounding as if the last thing he wants is a confrontation with the administration on Iran. This is in marked contrast to the statements of his Democratic counterpart, Senator Bob Menendez, who has been doing a slow burn over administration policy on Iran for years. With the GOP and the White House set to clash over a host of domestic issues like immigration and ObamaCare, some senators may think deferring to the president’s foreign-policy prerogative is the safest play.

But they’d be wrong both in terms of policy and politics.

That’s because ever since they managed to persuade Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to bend to their dictates and sign an interim accord that jettisoned the president’s previous pledges on the issue, the Iranians have been acting as if they had the whip hand over the Americans, not the other way around. Far from moving closer to giving up their nuclear goal, they have stood their ground in the talks and the two sides remain far apart. They continue to insist that they will not give up their centrifuges and have stonewalled on their plutonium plant and refuse to discuss their ballistic missile program or allow United Nations inspectors into facilities where their military research is going on. The question of their support for terrorism isn’t even being raised.

Predictably, the administration has inched closer to the Iranian position, proposing preposterous compromises such as disconnecting the pipes between the centrifuges that could easily be reversed.

Even worse, rather than keep his pledge to hold the Iranians to a finite period of talks, the president has allowed two extensions that have turned a six-month period into a year and counting. There’s no indication that he will ever deliver an ultimatum to the Iranians to yield or face the cut off of talks and the increased sanctions that Power says are still on the table for consideration.

In other words, the administration has spent the last year giving a public clinic in incompetent, weak diplomacy that has strengthened the Iranian position and left many in Europe waiting impatiently for the end of the farce so they can forget about the nuclear question and go back to doing business with Tehran.

But it doesn’t take much insight or imagination for senators or the rest of us to read between the lines of Power’s speech as well as recent statements by the president and to understand that the purpose of his process stopped being about the nuclear threat a long time ago. Rather than the negotiations being aimed at fulfilling the president’s 2012 campaign pledge to force the end of Iran’s nuclear program (a promise that was thrown down the administration memory hole a long time ago), it is now focused on fostering détente between the U.S. and the Islamist regime.

If forcing the Iranians to come to their senses and give up their nukes were the goal, the president wouldn’t have any hesitation about passing and enforcing tougher sanctions that would altogether shut down Iran’s sale of oil. If it were, he’d be calling for them himself, especially at a time when the decline in oil prices should be increasing the West’s economic leverage over Tehran. Instead, the administration is looking to coddle the Iranians and insulate them against the consequences of their actions. Sanctions might make a deal that would not allow Iran to become a threshold a nuclear power a possibility. But if your objective is making nice with the ayatollahs, then putting your foot on their throats is not what you want to do.

The point is, Congress must act on sanctions if there is to be any hope of convincing the administration to get serious about stopping the nuclear threat as well as to scaring the Iranians into thinking they have more to worry about than the paper tiger in the Oval Office they’ve been schooling for the last six years. Tougher sanctions might give the diplomacy that Obama and Power believe in with religious-like faith a chance. It would also be a good way to foster bipartisan agreement since Menendez and many other Senate Democrats will probably join them.

McConnell had nothing to say about Power’s speech, but let’s hope he tells Corker not to be fooled by this lesson in how not to conduct a negotiation. If appeasement of Iran is to be stopped, it will have to start in the Senate.

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Iran Appeasement at Stake in Midterms

American elections are always closely watched by foreign nations. But there may no more interested observers of tonight’s midterm results than the leaders of Iran. The ability of the Obama administration to pursue détente with Iran and to cut a new weak deal that will enable the Islamist regime to become a nuclear threshold state may rest on the ability of President Obama’s party to hold onto control of the Senate.

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American elections are always closely watched by foreign nations. But there may no more interested observers of tonight’s midterm results than the leaders of Iran. The ability of the Obama administration to pursue détente with Iran and to cut a new weak deal that will enable the Islamist regime to become a nuclear threshold state may rest on the ability of President Obama’s party to hold onto control of the Senate.

The administration’s zeal for a deal with the Iranians appears undiminished by Tehran’s decision to continue to impede the efforts of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to discover what is going on at their nuclear plants. As the Wall Street Journal reported last Friday, the IAEA has made public the fact that there has been no progress made in getting access for inspections despite a year of negotiations. The Iranians are, as is their wont, continuing to run out the clock on the West on those talks. At the same time they are stringing the U.S. along in its efforts to broker a deal despite reports of far-reaching concessions that would allow it to keep their nuclear infrastructure in any agreement.

Given the growing sentiment in Europe for ending economic sanctions on Iran, there is no guarantee that watering down the terms of an agreement even more will entice the Islamists to sign a deal ending the standoff. Yet given the administration’s signals about treating this issue as their top foreign-policy priority, it seems likely that Obama will get some kind of an accord that will enable him to say he has addressed the world’s concerns about the nuclear threat from Iran even if it does little to diminish that threat.

Obama’s ability to do as he likes on Iran stems in no small measure from the president’s ability to get the Democratic majority in the Senate—and in particular, Majority Leader Harry Reid—to do his bidding on the issue. Though a bipartisan proposal for toughening sanctions on Iran if the talks failed had overwhelming support in the Senate last winter, including the vocal advocacy of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez, Reid was able to spike the effort. If, as the administration has indicated, it will seek to bypass congressional approval for any new Iran deal, the president knows he can count on Reid to perform the same service this year despite complaints from fellow Democrat Menendez. But with the GOP in control of the Senate, the administration will have a lot less leeway in their pursuit of appeasement.

If a deal is signed, the president and his cheering section in the media will, no doubt, go all out to label any skeptics of the agreement as warmongers in much the same manner as they did last year. In order to end sanctions on Iran, a key requirement for Tehran in any accord, the president will suspend enforcement of the laws. But getting rid of them will require congressional action that is unlikely to occur. More to the point, Congress will have an opportunity to respond to an end run around the Constitution that requires Senate approval of all treaties with new sanctions on Iran.

Interestingly, the International Business Times speculates today that a switch in control of the Foreign Relations Committee could work to Obama’s advantage. If, as expected, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker replaces Menendez and Democrat Dick Durbin becomes the ranking member instead of Republican Mark Kirk, the IBT thinks this pair is more likely to do Obama’s bidding on Iran than the current team.

But that underestimates support throughout the Senate and on the committee for tougher sanctions on Iran. More to the point, the “sanctions mongers,” as the IBT refers to opponents of Iran appeasement, will likely have the backing of the putative Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. With or without a new weak deal with Iran, the odds are, Republicans in both the House and the Senate will pass a bill similar to the one proposed by Menendez and Kirk last year which sought to hold the president’s feet to the fire on Iran.

Those who think a GOP-run Senate will back Obama’s play on Iran are underestimating the skepticism about the president’s policy in Congress as well as the deep concern for Israel’s security in the GOP at a time when, as Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic column illustrated last week, the administration’s is seeking to chill relations with the Jewish state.

That’s why it won’t be just U.S. political junkies staying up tonight to see if Reid or McConnell is running the Senate next year. The ayatollahs understand their ability to manipulate a U.S. government that they have pegged as a weak negotiating partner may be dependent on the outcome.

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Border Surge Puts Gang’s Critics to the Test

Opponents of the bipartisan gang of eight immigration reform bill have spent the last few months blasting it as a scam. Their primary argument has been that the legislation was cooked up by Democrats to push legalization of the status of illegal immigrants without doing anything to deal with border security, and that Republican members of the gang like Senator Marco Rubio were either sellouts or dupes. Rubio lent some weight to this talking point when he admitted that enforcement provisions needed to be strengthened in order for it to gain more support or even get his own vote. But an agreement between the gang and two key Republican critics of their work to include an unprecedented buildup along the border with Mexico may have taken the air out of the anti-reform forces’ case.

The deal with Senators Bob Corker and John Hoeven calls for what its sponsors are calling a surge that will nearly double the number of border patrol agents deployed in the south as well as drones and mandating the completion of another 700 miles of fence separating the United States and Mexico. While no army or barrier can hermetically seal a frontier that crosses nearly half a continent, this will make it much harder for illegals to cross into the United States and go along way toward satisfying the justified worries about the security of those who live in the path of the migrants and those who bring them to this country. More to the point, it puts immigration reform foes to the test. With this kind of language and funding put into the bill, it is no longer possible to pretend that this is a repeat of the 1986 reform package that failed to stop the flood of job seekers from Mexico despite promises to do so. With enforcement of this kind, we have a right to ask those who oppose the bill: what are they really worried about? If they’re not protecting the border or the rule of law (which is flouted by the continuation of the current failed system), what bothers them about the idea of making it possible to create a viable scheme for legal immigration and the gradual legalization of those who are already here?

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Opponents of the bipartisan gang of eight immigration reform bill have spent the last few months blasting it as a scam. Their primary argument has been that the legislation was cooked up by Democrats to push legalization of the status of illegal immigrants without doing anything to deal with border security, and that Republican members of the gang like Senator Marco Rubio were either sellouts or dupes. Rubio lent some weight to this talking point when he admitted that enforcement provisions needed to be strengthened in order for it to gain more support or even get his own vote. But an agreement between the gang and two key Republican critics of their work to include an unprecedented buildup along the border with Mexico may have taken the air out of the anti-reform forces’ case.

The deal with Senators Bob Corker and John Hoeven calls for what its sponsors are calling a surge that will nearly double the number of border patrol agents deployed in the south as well as drones and mandating the completion of another 700 miles of fence separating the United States and Mexico. While no army or barrier can hermetically seal a frontier that crosses nearly half a continent, this will make it much harder for illegals to cross into the United States and go along way toward satisfying the justified worries about the security of those who live in the path of the migrants and those who bring them to this country. More to the point, it puts immigration reform foes to the test. With this kind of language and funding put into the bill, it is no longer possible to pretend that this is a repeat of the 1986 reform package that failed to stop the flood of job seekers from Mexico despite promises to do so. With enforcement of this kind, we have a right to ask those who oppose the bill: what are they really worried about? If they’re not protecting the border or the rule of law (which is flouted by the continuation of the current failed system), what bothers them about the idea of making it possible to create a viable scheme for legal immigration and the gradual legalization of those who are already here?

The answer we’ll get from many immigration foes is that there is something deeply wrong with “rewarding” those 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country with a chance for eventual citizenship. That’s understandable up to a point. Illegal immigrants did break the law. But if they’ve come here to work (generally in jobs that Americans didn’t want) and lead decent crime-free lives, doesn’t it make sense to bring them in out of the shadows and have them paying taxes (as well as fines before they can become citizens) rather than remaining outside the law? Perhaps some still claim that the illegals will, in Mitt Romney’s unfortunate phrase, “self-deport” back to wherever they came from. But we know that won’t happen. Nor will the United States deport 11 million people, many of whom have children that are American citizens. As Rubio has stated again and again, fears about “amnesty” are misplaced since that is what we have now.

Those who also claim that there is a third choice between the status quo and legalization are not being serious. That is not politically possible. Like it or not, the choice is between the gang’s compromise bill—which with its emphasis on border security and steep burdens on those illegals who want to be citizens represents a stark departure from what President Obama and liberal Democrats would like to do—and what we have now.

In the absence of a viable argument about security, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there are some among the bill’s opponents who have a deeper objection to immigration reform. Some of them just don’t want to fix a broken system because they don’t want to do anything that facilitates legal immigration. They forget that immigration has always been an engine of American prosperity, not our impoverishment. They confuse the need to reform our runaway entitlements with the needs of people who come here to work. Even worse, some express worry about the growing number of Hispanics and the political implication of immigration.

Suffice it say that these are not the sorts of points that will win many arguments outside of the hard right. The bill is, like all pieces of legislation on this scale, complicated, too long and stuffed with deals to gain votes. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. That may not be enough to convince House Republicans who are convinced the party base is anti-immigration. But stripped of a defensible concern about the border, these GOP members need to understand that they are hurting both the country and their party by resorting to less presentable arguments.

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Senate Steps Up Effort to Aid Syrian Rebels

Congress seems to be stepping into the vacuum left by the administration’s non-policy on Syria. At least it appears that way from the bipartisan vote yesterday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which voted 15-3 to approve a bill co-sponsored by chairman Robert Menendez and ranking minority member Bob Corker that calls for providing lethal aid to vetted rebel groups.

Committee members beat back objections from their colleague, Senator Rand Paul, who claimed that they were “rushing” to get involved in Syria–as if the U.S. hasn’t sat on the sidelines for more than two years.

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Congress seems to be stepping into the vacuum left by the administration’s non-policy on Syria. At least it appears that way from the bipartisan vote yesterday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which voted 15-3 to approve a bill co-sponsored by chairman Robert Menendez and ranking minority member Bob Corker that calls for providing lethal aid to vetted rebel groups.

Committee members beat back objections from their colleague, Senator Rand Paul, who claimed that they were “rushing” to get involved in Syria–as if the U.S. hasn’t sat on the sidelines for more than two years.

What was most striking was the extent to which the Democrats on the panel criticized a Democratic president. The Daily Beast quotes Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania: “I have to say I think we all share this, at least the last year if not longer, we’ve all been frustrated that our country hasn’t done enough to be responsive. I think it’s in our national security interests to address this.”

The question now is whether Sen. Harry Reid will allow this legislation to come to a floor vote and what, if anything, the House will do. The White House is no doubt lobbying to prevent passage.

Even if this bill passes, it will not necessarily change the balance of power on the ground. At this late date, it may be necessary for the U.S. and our allies to enforce a no-fly zone and mount air strikes to prevent Bashar Assad from scoring more significant gains–arms to the rebels may no longer be enough. But at the very least this congressional action should push the Obama administration to do more than it has done to date–which isn’t much.

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Can Congress Force Action to Oust Assad?

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is due to deliberate on Tuesday on bipartisan legislation introduced by Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Bob Corker that would, as Robert Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative notes, “allow U.S. military assistance to vetted Syrian rebels, authorize the imposition of new sanctions on sellers of arms and oil to the Assad regime, and create a $250 million transition fund for post-Assad Syria.”

These are all good ideas, although the provision of military assistance to the rebels should have begun a year or two ago; if it had, extremists might not have gained such prominence in the rebels’ ranks and Bashar Assad would not have been able to stage a dismaying comeback with the aid of Hezbollah and Iran. Yet is never too late to act.

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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is due to deliberate on Tuesday on bipartisan legislation introduced by Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Bob Corker that would, as Robert Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative notes, “allow U.S. military assistance to vetted Syrian rebels, authorize the imposition of new sanctions on sellers of arms and oil to the Assad regime, and create a $250 million transition fund for post-Assad Syria.”

These are all good ideas, although the provision of military assistance to the rebels should have begun a year or two ago; if it had, extremists might not have gained such prominence in the rebels’ ranks and Bashar Assad would not have been able to stage a dismaying comeback with the aid of Hezbollah and Iran. Yet is never too late to act.

A major battle is now unfolding in the city of Qusayr pitting Hezbollah and Assad fighters against rebels in what both sides say could be a turning point in the war. A signal now from the U.S. that it will do more to help the rebels could tilt the balance of power in their favor. Perception matters a great deal in war and the prospect of American support for the insurgency could lead more Syrians to join its ranks while causing some of Assad’s fighters to lose heart.

Yet the Obama administration appears opposed to such action. It raises legitimate concerns about the dangers of arming the rebels, without offering any alternative policy to avert this slow-motion catastrophe. The best bet now is that, just as with Iran sanctions, Congress could force the administration’s hand.

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Disgruntled Hagel Staffers Coming Forward?

That’s what Senator Bob Corker hinted at on “This Week” yesterday. So far there haven’t been many articles on Chuck Hagel’s alleged mistreatment of staffers, but it sounds like this may turn into a bigger issue: 

This morning on “This Week,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee expressed concerns about the “temperament” of Chuck Hagel, the man President Obama nominated to be his next Secretary of Defense.

“Just his overall temperament and is he suited to run a department or a big agency or a big entity like the Pentagon,” Corker told me. “I think there are numbers of staffers who are coming forth now just talking about the way he has dealt with them. I have, certainly questions, about a lot of things.”

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That’s what Senator Bob Corker hinted at on “This Week” yesterday. So far there haven’t been many articles on Chuck Hagel’s alleged mistreatment of staffers, but it sounds like this may turn into a bigger issue: 

This morning on “This Week,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee expressed concerns about the “temperament” of Chuck Hagel, the man President Obama nominated to be his next Secretary of Defense.

“Just his overall temperament and is he suited to run a department or a big agency or a big entity like the Pentagon,” Corker told me. “I think there are numbers of staffers who are coming forth now just talking about the way he has dealt with them. I have, certainly questions, about a lot of things.”

Corker went on to say he wouldn’t necessarily oppose Hagel’s nomination over this, but it adds another bullet point to the growing case against Hagel. As Elliott Abrams writes at NRO, policy objections alone tend to be a weak argument against confirmation. But questions about competence, temperament, management ability, personal character, etc.–combined, these could make a powerful case. If former staffers start speaking out to the media, or show up to testify at the hearings, that could prove very damaging.

It’s also not as if Obama is defending Hagel’s controversial policy positions. Quite the opposite; the argument for the defense secretary nominee is that he’s come around to Obama’s (professed) stance on Iranian sanctions and the use of military force. So while the president should be able to choose someone who shares his views–even if these views are controversial–there are real questions about whether Hagel actually does.

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McCain to Join Senate Foreign Relations Committee

The most vocal opponent of Susan Rice’s potential secretary of state nomination, John McCain, is joining the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just in time for the confirmation hearings. Josh Rogin reports

MANAMA – The committee that will soon vet the next secretary of state will have a new Republican heavyweight next year: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the man leading the charge against potential nominee U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.

McCain told The Cable he will join the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and also remain on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in an interview on the sidelines of the 2012 IISS Manama Security Dialogue. …

It’s unclear whether the five or six Senate Republicans who have come out against Rice’s potential nomination would succeed in their effort to thwart her nomination, if it materializes. McCain said the Senate should use the confirmation process to properly examine the president’s choice, and he pointed to her SFRC hearing as the place for the final showdown.

“I’ll wait and see if she’s nominated and we’ll move on from there. She has the right to have hearings. We’ll see what happens in the hearings,” he said.

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The most vocal opponent of Susan Rice’s potential secretary of state nomination, John McCain, is joining the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just in time for the confirmation hearings. Josh Rogin reports

MANAMA – The committee that will soon vet the next secretary of state will have a new Republican heavyweight next year: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the man leading the charge against potential nominee U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.

McCain told The Cable he will join the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and also remain on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in an interview on the sidelines of the 2012 IISS Manama Security Dialogue. …

It’s unclear whether the five or six Senate Republicans who have come out against Rice’s potential nomination would succeed in their effort to thwart her nomination, if it materializes. McCain said the Senate should use the confirmation process to properly examine the president’s choice, and he pointed to her SFRC hearing as the place for the final showdown.

“I’ll wait and see if she’s nominated and we’ll move on from there. She has the right to have hearings. We’ll see what happens in the hearings,” he said.

In other words, Obama will have another headache to deal with if Susan Rice gets the nod. Having John Kerry (Rice’s most likely competitor for secretary of state) and Bob Corker (a critic of Rice) as the top Democrat and Republican, respectively, on the committee would be bad enough on its own. But McCain had been leading the charge against her, and having him on the committee will mean a lot more scrutiny into the administration’s Benghazi response.

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Collins, Corker Not Sold on Susan Rice

Susan Rice is still lobbying hard for that secretary of state post, but she struck out again with Senate Republicans yesterday. After meeting with Rice, Senators Susan Collins and Bob Corker said they still had concerns about her potential nomination:

Corker, who will be the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the new congressional term, implied that he considered Rice too much of a partisan and urged Obama to pick a more “independent” person as chief diplomat.

“All of us here hold the secretary of State to a different standard than most Cabinet members,” he said. “We want somebody of independence.”

He implied that Rice, who is close to the president, was, instead, a “loyal soldier.” Corker also seemed to contrast Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, with whom he said he has had a positive and “transparent” relationship “from day one.”

Collins said that after a 75-minute session with Rice she still had many unanswered questions and remains “troubled” that on the Benghazi issue Rice played “a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign.”

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Susan Rice is still lobbying hard for that secretary of state post, but she struck out again with Senate Republicans yesterday. After meeting with Rice, Senators Susan Collins and Bob Corker said they still had concerns about her potential nomination:

Corker, who will be the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the new congressional term, implied that he considered Rice too much of a partisan and urged Obama to pick a more “independent” person as chief diplomat.

“All of us here hold the secretary of State to a different standard than most Cabinet members,” he said. “We want somebody of independence.”

He implied that Rice, who is close to the president, was, instead, a “loyal soldier.” Corker also seemed to contrast Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, with whom he said he has had a positive and “transparent” relationship “from day one.”

Collins said that after a 75-minute session with Rice she still had many unanswered questions and remains “troubled” that on the Benghazi issue Rice played “a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign.”

And here’s some more evidence for Jonathan’s argument that Rice’s Senate Republican critics are really trying to boost their friend John Kerry, the other top contender for secretary of state: 

Collins was less hesitant about how Sen. John Kerry, another potential secretary of state pick, might fare in the nomination process, however.

“I think John Kerry would be an excellent appointment and would be easily confirmed by his colleagues,” she said.

Collins has not been the first Republican Senator to pump Kerry up for the appointment: Republican Senator John Barrasso, of Wyoming, said Kerry would “sail through” the Senate and that Mr. Obama should nominate him if he wants an easy nominating process.

There is not enough aspirin in the world to treat the headache Secretary of State John Kerry would become for Obama. At least Susan Rice is a loyal foot soldier who won’t stray far from the White House. Kerry sees himself as some sort of elder statesman/grand strategist. Can you imagine him jumping to orders from President Obama?

It’s doubtful Senate Republicans actually think Kerry would be any better than Rice in the position, but maybe they figure they would have more access in the State Department with him in office. While Rice would probably do less damage in the position than Kerry, she would also be much closer with the White House.

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GOP Senators Stand Up to Obama

Unlike the cooing Jews who are selected to meet with Obama and can’t muster a robust debate, Senate Republicans weren’t shy about voicing their complaints about Obama at a lunch:

Senators and other sources inside the meeting described the gathering as “testy” and “direct” — and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) accused Obama of acting two-faced by asking for GOP support on regulatory reform only to push forward with a bill supported mainly by Democrats. Others felt that the meeting may have made already tense relations between the two parties even worse.

Corker let it rip:

In one of the most heated exchanges of the lunch, Corker accused Obama of acting “duplicitous” in his calls for bipartisanship, saying that he was trying to cut a deal on regulatory reform only to see the rug pulled out from underneath him. At one point, Corker said Obama was using lunch with Republicans as a “prop.”

“I told him I thought there was a degree of audacity in him even showing up today after what had happened with financial regulation,” Corker told reporters after Republicans met with Obama.

I believe it is called “speaking truth to power.”

And one more thing — when the Democrats were buying into Obama’s elongated timetable and phony sanctions, the Senate minority leader “urged the president to back a more forceful Iran sanctions bill.” Not everyone is buying into the Obama sanctions charade.

Here’s the lesson for American Jewish “leaders”: it’s better to stand up to the president and register principled opposition than to soft-pedal disagreement or worse, cheerlead for a policy with which you disagree. The president will still talk to you. Just as he must deal with the GOP senators, Obama still needs the support — financial and otherwise — of American Jews.

Yes, Obama is remarkably thin-skinned, but the notion (as some officials in Jewish mainstream groups have voiced to me) that you therefore dare not criticize him is unhelpful and counterproductive. It’s never a good idea to give in to a bully or a petulant child. He will only get worse.

Unlike the cooing Jews who are selected to meet with Obama and can’t muster a robust debate, Senate Republicans weren’t shy about voicing their complaints about Obama at a lunch:

Senators and other sources inside the meeting described the gathering as “testy” and “direct” — and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) accused Obama of acting two-faced by asking for GOP support on regulatory reform only to push forward with a bill supported mainly by Democrats. Others felt that the meeting may have made already tense relations between the two parties even worse.

Corker let it rip:

In one of the most heated exchanges of the lunch, Corker accused Obama of acting “duplicitous” in his calls for bipartisanship, saying that he was trying to cut a deal on regulatory reform only to see the rug pulled out from underneath him. At one point, Corker said Obama was using lunch with Republicans as a “prop.”

“I told him I thought there was a degree of audacity in him even showing up today after what had happened with financial regulation,” Corker told reporters after Republicans met with Obama.

I believe it is called “speaking truth to power.”

And one more thing — when the Democrats were buying into Obama’s elongated timetable and phony sanctions, the Senate minority leader “urged the president to back a more forceful Iran sanctions bill.” Not everyone is buying into the Obama sanctions charade.

Here’s the lesson for American Jewish “leaders”: it’s better to stand up to the president and register principled opposition than to soft-pedal disagreement or worse, cheerlead for a policy with which you disagree. The president will still talk to you. Just as he must deal with the GOP senators, Obama still needs the support — financial and otherwise — of American Jews.

Yes, Obama is remarkably thin-skinned, but the notion (as some officials in Jewish mainstream groups have voiced to me) that you therefore dare not criticize him is unhelpful and counterproductive. It’s never a good idea to give in to a bully or a petulant child. He will only get worse.

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