Senators’ letter to Iran was reckless, but probably not illegal

The senator’s letter to Iran probably wasn’t illegal, but it was foolish.

Tom CottonA lot of buzz went on in the past week over a letter that Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas wrote and 46 Republican senators signed.  Some have called the letter a violation of the Logan Act.   There are essentially three questions to ask:

  1. Did the Senators violate the Logan Act?
  2. Did they violate their oath to the Constitution?
  3. Was their letter a good idea?

CNN’s Jeremy Diamond has provided an excellent analysis of whether the Logan Act was violated.  In a nutshell, senators receive the same protection from the 1st Amendment of the Constitution that the rest of of receive.  As an inherently political act, the letter would receive the highest level of protection from any court.  CNN points out that in the over 200 years the Logan Act has existed there has been a grand total of one indictment and no actual prosecutions.  In short the the Logan Act is a paper tiger, and rightfully so.

The Act itself reads as follows:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

One gets the feel that when President John Adams affixed his signature he was thinking in the same way that led him to believe that the title of the head of the new republic should be king and not president.  People every day talk with representatives of foreign governments, to provide them their perspectives.  Indeed successive administrations, including this one, have encouraged those dialogs, because they advance American values.

Some might argue that the senators who signed the letter had in some way violated their oath to uphold the Constitution, as if somehow they did that by conducting foreign policy.  The Constitution itself is mostly quiet about that.  Article II Section 6 does state that it is the job of the president to conclude treaties with other nations, on the advice and consent of other countries.  But it doesn’t say that others in government can’t speak to other governments.

And so we are left with the question as to whether it was a good idea to send any such letter to Ayatollah Khamenei.  Here the senators erred in two ways.  First, the Cotton letter itself advises the Iranians that any deal President Obama makes on nuclear development with the Ayatollah could be overturned with the stroke of a pen of the next president, because it doesn’t have the force of a treaty.  As it happens, most treaties can be abrogated with the same stroke of a pen by a future president, and so their argument that such an agreement should be brought before the Senate is largely moot.

But beyond that and more importantly, the senators have failed to understand it will not be the United states that enforces of any agreement in economic terms, but rather a coalition of countries, largely in Europe, who will decide to either buy Iran’s oil or not.  The fact is that oil is a commodity, and it will be sold at market prices, and Iran doesn’t care where the money comes from, so long as it comes.  Thus whether the next president backs out of an agreement with Iran matters only in as much as the Europeans also back out of the deal.  They will not tolerate intransigence or extremism, either by Iran or the United States, either in advance of an agreement or later.  If they believe that negotiations have been scuttled for other than security reasons, they may either make a separate deal on nuclear development with Iran, or simply let the sanctions they have in place lapse.  If they believe a president has backed out of an agreement other than for cause, the Europeans will not follow suit.

In addition, it would send a horrible message to the rest of the world if the next president did back out of an agreement without strong justification, because it would it would call into question the word of every succeeding U.S. president.  That’s very bad for America.

Therefore we have to ask why the senators sent the letter in the first place.  The only convenient answer is that all politics is local, and that they wanted to show that they were “tough”.  Certainly that is the image that Senator Cotton likes to project, and it certainly plays well with some parts of the population.  But that doesn’t make the letter the smart thing to have done from a diplomatic perspective.  We are at this point with a relatively moderate President Rouhani at the table because of effective economic – not military – measures.  Certainly we have to be wary of future versions of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but we should also be aware that much of the distrust between countries can give way to better understanding and an end to hostile behavior only when each nation recognizes that the other is not filled with crazy people.

North Korean Nonsense:

In the last two weeks we’ve heard about how the North Koreans have, well, let’s see…

All of this stemmed from further sanctions the U.N. imposed after these nutcases conducted a nuclear test.

These people are, quite simply put, wackos with nuclear weapons, each dictator worse than the last.  The people they least endanger is America, and the people they most endanger are themselves, and their brothers, sisters, and cousins to the south.  Not far behind them are the Chinese to the north.  Clearly basketball diplomacy hasn’t helped at all.

The United States has a tendency to clean up messes all around the world.  We get yelled at for doing so, and then people privately thank their lucky stars we do.  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone else did the dirty work for once?  As it happens the Chinese have been flexing their muscles all over the region, from Japan to Malaysia.  They’ve even breached South Korean waters.  But the North they leave alone.

With lots to lose and the fact that the Chinese have been propping up this government for six decades, the Chinese will have to deal with the consequences far more so than we will.  It is a problem that the United States cannot solve.  Our having sent B-2s was a nice show, but if we end up in an armed conflict with North Korea, mostly South Koreans, Chinese, and maybe Japanese get hurt.  That region must resolve the matter.  B-2s shouldn’t do it.

You don’t get to be a leader by simply showing military might.  You have to use that might to address real problems.  The Chinese have feared above all that if they intervene in the affairs of others, some day it will be their turn to be on the receiving end of such interference.  Their turn may come, but not because they’ve done the right thing with North Korea.

Saddle Up, Boys: Iran is Next

It seems to me that back in the 1940s when the U.N. Security Council was formed, its purpose was for governments to work out differences before one decided to take unilateral action.  This seems to have never worked well, our latest example being the disingenuous Chinese who feign interest in diplomacy with Iran, when it has become perfectly obvious to even the most casual observer that Iran will not give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But is it the Security Council that is failing, or is it just the way we deal with it?  When the same block of characters (and we can expect Russia to join in the obstructionism) constantly put commercial interests in front of greater protection of societies, perhaps the best way to deal with them is to ignore them and proceed blockades, sanctions, and limited military actions, as may be appropriate.  The lawless government of Iran must be checked with first the real threat of such actions, and then actual, well, actions that support principles long mouthed by all, and practiced by few.  Is this cowboy diplomacy?  You bet your sixshooter, but it’s not like any other options are being presented by our so-called partners in peace.

It’s time to take on not only Iran, but clear misbehavior on the part of those who sit in the Security Council.