Lassitude in the Legislature on Iran

July 27, 2015

Editor’s Note: This piece on the War on the Rocks Hasty Ambush blog is published in partnership with the Hoover Institution’s new Military History in the News, a weekly column from the Hoover Institution that reflects on how the study of the past alone allows us to make sense of the often baffling daily violence, not by offering exact parallels from history, but rather by providing contexts of similarity and difference that foster perspective and insight — and reassurance that nothing is ever quite new.


Bringing an historical bent to the business of blogging is a temptation to, if not necessarily a manifestation of, schizophrenia. Nonetheless, President Obama’s desire to bypass the Congress in favor of the United Nations in ratifying his Iran deal marks a moment to reflect upon the relationship between legislatures and executives when it comes to making strategy.

Anyone outside the Washington Beltway would recognize that the Iran negotiations have resulted in a de facto treaty. The fact that the “deal” involves six other nations underscores the point; to regard it as something the president can conclude simply by “executive order” is to enter an Orwellian realm. Alexander Hamilton, that closeted monarchist, is rolling over in his grave, never imagining that energy in the executive would be met by such lassitude in the legislature.

Let him rotate!” Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says in effect. Corker’s late bill, widely praised as the kind of moderate bipartisanship the Washington establishment so dearly loves, puts a punctuation mark on congressional cession of any real role in American strategy-making. The process of representative retreat began a century ago, with the decision to become a global great power and the creation of an administrative state to support that ambition. It took a great leap during World War II and held fast during the Cold War and in its aftermath. Post-Iran, the Congress has little left to give away. The Budget Control Act, having left “entitlements” untouched, deprives it of its power of the purse. All that remains is to trade Senate confirmations for chocolates on the pillow.

Beyond the problems of corruption and tyranny, absolutism is also a tried-and-true recipe for strategic failure. From Philip II to Louis XIV to Bismarck to Stalin, modern history is awash with stories of great-and-powerful wizards, geniuses-for-a-day whose creations could not survive in contests with constitutionally constrained adversaries. Divided-powers democracies may be dull, slow, and inefficient, but — built for the long run — they can be brutally effective. On the day of the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote to his brother Milton, “Hitler should beware the fury of an aroused democracy.”

Alas, the Republican Party, like Jacobites in exile, can only dream of the day one of its line will become king; thus the silly squabble between Scott Walker and Jeb Bush about whether they can repudiate the Iran deal on their first day as president. They both — perhaps intentionally — miss the point. The damage will have been done.

If the democracy is to be aroused in a timely way, it is up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, men with the brains of backbenchers, to lead the charge. It is just possible that President Obama has gone too far with his UN-first gambit and insulted the institutional manhood of America’s Congress. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, decried it as “an affront to the American people.” But Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), the new leader of the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would only say that he thought, “the administration should wait until after Congress has had its [60-day] review period.”

I suppose that when you’re convinced that the fall is all there is, it does matter how you fall down. But America’s founders deprived the executive of absolute power not merely because they feared the depravity of tyrants. They also observed that George III and his Tory sycophants in Parliament were throwing away the first British Empire. The first Americans learned to despise both their overly energetic executive and his small-minded legislature.


Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst, is the codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.