As Congress begins its consideration of the Iran deal, the public debate has become increasingly frustrating. Or more precisely, what is so frustrating is that two distinct debates have thus far been hopelessly conflated.
The first is the debate over how Congress should vote on the so-called “resolution of disapproval” that will be introduced sometime in early September. The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, passed just a few months ago, sought to ensure Congress a role in reviewing whatever nuclear agreement negotiators ultimately produced. The law temporarily snatched away the president’s authority to suspend sanctions himself, allowing the Congress a 60-day window in which it might consider, and potentially scuttle, a deal.
A vote to disapprove the deal will not be symbolic. If Congress passes resolution of disapproval—and overrides the presumed veto—the president is permanently barred from waiving sanctions. The United States would be unable to fulfill the obligations to which the Executive has committed, and the deal would presumably fall apart. No one really knows what comes after, but the administration insists that the results would be catastrophic: Iran would renounce obligation to the deal, our partners in the P5+1 would be livid with us, and the international sanctions regime would collapse. We would be left with the worst of all worlds: no inspections, no sanctions, and no international support for an eventual military strike.
Advocates of a congressional vote-down have struggled to develop a counter-narrative. Some insist that there is still a better deal to be had, that our partners will not really bolt and that sanctions leverage and the status-quo can still be maintained. Others have even suggested that disapproval of the deal will have no practical effect at all; the president will simply use his general enforcement discretion to cease implementing the sanctions.
On this question, the administration has the better argument. The possibilities presented by the deal’s critics are hazier and less realistic than the doomsday portrait that the White House is busily painting. The likely results of Congress rejecting a deal would, at this point, be very bad.
But honesty demands we acknowledge that the choice at “this point” is a creation of the White House. The administration is not simply using apocalyptic terms in presenting Congress with a choice; it constructed the choice in an apocalyptic matter.
By finalizing details without congressional input, publicly threatening a veto, and making very clear his lack of need for Congress’ support, President Obama gave Iran and the international community the impression of congressional irrelevance. The message communicated was less “this deal will have to meet congressional standards” than “I can keep Congress at bay.” In so doing, the President raised the stakes on Congress so they have become impossibly high. Perceived as a necessary rubber-stamp rather than a coequal and essential actor, Congress will be viewed as an international spoiler. Politically, this was a straightforward move on the President’s part: whenever you want an someone to make a certain choice, the best way to force her to do so is to raise the costs of alternatives. This is Behavioral Economics 101.
Still, one can understand Congress’ fury. When Senator Bob Corker grumbles that the administration has “turned Iran from being a pariah, to now Congress being a pariah,” he is right. The president has responded to Congress’ demand for a choice by constructing a choice that isn’t really a choice at all. He has its members over a barrel; either approve a deal they don’t like, or reject it at great national cost. This is brinkmanship, but relations between the Executive and Legislative have often been marked by brinkmanship. The President is acting well within his prerogatives, even if his advisers are being irredeemably smug about it.
But there is a second question, less concrete but no less critical. This deeper question is not whether a better alternative now lies before us, but whether we could and should have done better. Whether this deal is appropriate and acceptable on its own terms and in its own time. It is in reply to this question that the White House’s repeated warnings of war are a misdirection. Worse, they are an evasion of democratic accountability.
In a representative democracy, we understand that choices will be made on our behalf, that decisions must be delegated, and that they must often be made in a manner and time-frame that do not allow the public to weigh in. So while we elect our leaders for their judgment, we also hold them accountable through a process of robust public debate, criticism and if necessary, condemnation. Engaging in that debate is a democratic responsibility, even when these debates may lack an easily discernible, direct effect.
And often, there are effects. Our leaders act constrained by the knowledge that they will be judged--at the voting booth and in the court of public opinion. And even when decision-maker (as is true of both Obama and Kerry) may have no elections left, condemnation still carries deterrent power. No one enjoys ignominy.
It is here, on the second question, that the deal’s critics are right. Given the hand the President was given--a collapsing Iranian economy, widespread regional support, and strong congressional willingness to increase economic leverage--the deal which has been produced is severely depressing. Iran will emerge from this deal in ten years with an intact, industrial-sized nuclear program; we will emerge without even the leverage we have today--and with our allies so invested in Iran as to make the prospect of rebuilding a sanctions regime in time to affect its nuclear program laughable.
Secretary Kerry’s refrain, that sanctions work because they are multilateral and that our coalition was starting to fray, is no doubt true. But it is also simplistic. The Europeans and Chinese may have had little appetite for more sanctions, but their willingness to sustain the regime is not immune from American incentives and diplomacy. Multiple times throughout the negotiations in Vienna (and the months preceding), negotiators wondered whether a deal would be achievable. As Secretary Kerry explained yesterday, if Iran hadn’t met core requirements, he was prepared to walk away--and was confident that he would have done so together with his P5+1 allies.
So why not stand firm on more of these issues? Is Kerry really certain that if the US had insisted that Iran’s implementation of the Additional Protocol be given teeth (the AP envisions IAEA inspections of undeclared sites taking place within 24 hours; the deal’s Joint Commission process extends it to 24 days) other countries would have balked? Does Kerry really mean that if we had insisted that Iran commit to ratifying the Additional Protocol rather than merely to “seek to ratify” it, our coalition would have crumbled? Certainly, there were some areas (for instance the arms embargo) where pressure from our allies necessitated flexibility. But there were also a myriad of small areas where we could have forced the issue, and if Iran demurred, increased the pressure, waiting for a better deal.
Critics who pretend that the congressional debate is simply a referendum on the deal are behaving with profound irresponsibility. One can (and to my mind, should) think this deal is an embarrassment that should never have been signed, and think that congressional scuttling would make it worse. Whether one would vote to destroy a deal today is a very different question than whether one would have signed it two weeks ago. These are different actions at different moments with different effects. As we roll through time, our choices change and the costs change with them--sometimes drastically.
But the White House’s attempt to confine the public debate to a congressional vote is no more tolerable. That the administration successfully engineered the situation such that a debate on the merits of the deal is merely retrospective was politically savvy. But in a democracy, we do not dismiss retrospective judgement as Monday morning quarterbacking; we call it political accountability.