April 3, 2015
What does the recent furor over the 47 Republican senators’ missive to Iran’s ayatollahs have to do with the United States and Ireland?
Nothing – at least until defenders of the 47 started talking smack about the time 95 years ago when 88 members of the US House of Representatives sent a cable to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and the British Parliament protesting the brutal treatment by the British of Irish prisoners who had been stripped of all rights and held without arraignment or trial.
Champions of the 47 senators have claimed that their letter to Iran was not unprecedented, citing the congressional move in 1920. They have contended that it was – and is – just fine that Congress undercut and derailed a president’s and his State Department’s constitutionally empowered responsibility to negotiate agreements with foreign entities. They have asserted that it was their “duty” to hijack foreign policy from a president before that policy had been crafted. We’ll see how their stance holds up if Democrat senators and reps behave the same way if Jeb Bush wins the White House.
No president, regardless of party, should have foreign policy negotiations made the subject of interference by Congress before legislators even know if there is an agreement and what it entails.
On one count, the 47 and their cheerleaders are right. In following the controversial footsteps of the 88 who sent the “Irish Cable” to the British government, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton – the “brains” behind the letter – and his 46 self-appointed fellow “diplomats” acted in bald-faced challenge to, and contradiction
of, the policies of a duly elected president. In 1920, Congressmen assailed Woodrow Wilson, no supporter of Irish independence and an unquestioned Anglophile. In 2015, some of the senators seem to
believe that President Obama wants Iran to have a nuclear arsenal; some genuinely believe that he does
not grasp the danger Oran poses; and a handful are out-and-out Obama-phobes.
But there is one stark difference. Even though the thorny question of Irish independence complicated the
League of Nations talks after World War I, the Wilson administration was not involved in direct negotiations with Britain over issues that could lead to war.
Some have hailed the 47 senators as patriots; others have blasted them as akin to traitors. Retired Gen. Paul Eaton, in the New York Times, opined that Cotton and crew were not treasonous, but “mutinous.” The senators waded – stormed, actually – into the middle of actual negotiations not only between the Obama administration and Iran, but also between Britain, France, and the other nations immersed in the process.
The men who sent the “Irish Cable” in 1920 intended to embarrass President Wilson. It would be hard to deny that the Senate’s 47 intended to destroy any chance of an agreement with Iran – before they knew what that agreement might be. Do they have every right and duty to oppose any deal? Yes, but before anyone even knows what that agreement is?
The actions of “Smack 47” (with apologies to the great band “Black 47”) are transparently political. At least human rights played a role on the 1920 cable. It is hard to recall such a blatant attempt as Cotton’s
prose to undermine a president, whether Democrat or Republican. If 47 Democrats had dashed off such a
sloppy, ill-written missive to a Soviet premier during the Reagan years or to Iraq in 1990, or even 2003, there would have been ferocious pushback – and rightfully so. Barack Obama is not Neville Chamberlain – just ask Osama Bin Laden.
Whether on his watch or that of the next president, it is a good bet that Iran will not possess nuclear weapons.
In an unattributed article (“Ireland and American Politics”) that appeared in the Harvard Crimson in
May 1920, a professor or a student penned the following words about the 1920 cable from Congress to
“And now 88 members of Congress have enabled Lloyd George, criticising [sic] the treatment of political
prisoners in Ireland. … Anyone with half an eye can see beneath the pretense of love for Irish liberty to the selfish political motives that prompted these actions. … America must realize that meddlesome interference by a few vote-seeking politicians is not going to settle the Irish question; it will only make matters worse.” [Some of the legislators were staunch supporters of Irish independence and furious over the treatment of Irish prisoners; others were, as the writer noted, political opportunists. In the Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge, of Massachusetts, no fan of the Irish cause, would later acknowledge that he used the issue of Irish independence as a means to undercut Wilson.]
In the most polarized Washington in memory, “meddlesome interference” is an especially apt term. Republicans view the Affordable Care Act as just that. That, however, unlike the “Irish Cable of 1920” or the “Letter to the Ayatollahs of 2015,” is a domestic issue.
Throughout our nation’s history, presidents and State Departments have set the initial parameters of foreign policy. In ignoring that history, the 47 senators have endeavored to neuter the nation’s commander-in-chief and the State Department. They have “enabled” the ayatollahs to “criticize” the administration and all of Congress. Their letter weakens the nation and weakens all future presidents no matter whether they have a D or an R next to their names. Such was not the case in 1920, and it is historically and intellectually specious to compare the two instances of Congressional “meddling.”
No matter that many Americans loathed Woodrow Wilson for his anti-Irish stance, no matter that many
despise George W. Bush for his race to war against Iraq, no matter that many revile Barack Obama for
reasons base or principled, the letter of Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and his colleagues ventured far
beyond the proverbial pale.