Wednesday, April 8, 2015

words don't matter

I was discouraged to read in today's NYTimes a comment by the NSC's Ben Rhodes that the sanctions against certain Venezuelan officials were based on a lie,
“The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, during a telephone call with reporters to discuss the president’s trip. ...
American officials had previously sought to play down the language in the order, saying that the administration was required by law to make the security threat designation to carry out the sanctions.
But Mr. Rhodes went further on Tuesday, explicitly stating that Venezuela did not pose a threat, adding that the language was “completely pro forma.”
He's technically right, of course. The law used for the sanctions, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1978 [IEEPA] precribes a format, a declaration of national emergency, in order to be invoked. But by arguing that the words don't really matter he is disparaging and undercutting the law and raising doubts in the legislative branch that the administration feels bound by the words of its laws.

Monday, April 6, 2015

the Iran deal

The outline of the still-to-be-completed agreement with Iran restraining its nuclear programs looks pretty good to me, considering the alternatives. The public debate, however, is already focusing on false alternatives. The lengthy negotiations were never intended to deal with Iranian foreign policy or its support for various militant groups, so ti should not be judged on that basis.  Prime Minister Netanyahu claims that the alternative to this deal is a better agreement, if only the U.S. would increase sanctions until Iran surrenders. That's a mirage, for the failure to accept this agreement, regardless of what the United States does, is the collapse of the international coalition that until now has agreed to tough sanctions as leverage for diplomacy.  Israel is surely safer under this agreement and intrusive monitoring than under an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program.

If the intelligence community and other technical experts conclude, once a final agreement is signed, that it does limit Iran’s breakout potential to a year, I think the administration can make a good case for it.

The administration faces two big hurdles, however, the American friends of Israel who are persuaded that the agreement is bad for Israel and Congress as an institution that will likely take destructive actions unless it can be given a constructive role.

As a first step, the administration should stop its punitive actions against Israel. They can be held in reserve pending future Israeli behavior. Next, the administration should reach out to American friends of Israel and to Israelis not in the Netanyahu government to see what steps might reassure Israel if the agreement is concluded and implemented. Maybe increased military aid would help. Maybe the U.S. should offer a formal defense treaty, something  both sides have resisted in the past but which now might provide reassurances.

To deal with Congress, the administration should work out a deal giving Congress one or more votes on the agreement. The President has broad legal authority to sign and implement this kind of agreement without submitting it to a 2/3 Senate vote. But he should agree to allow an advisory vote by Congress and he should embrace a clear congressional vote on lifting sanctions. If the end result is a congressional vote criticizing the agreement and keeping US sanctions in place, the agreement could still go into effect; the US could still support a UN Security Council vote lifting sanctions; Iran would still be under pressure to comply with the agreement in order to get sanctions lifted by other countries.  That messy situation still looks better to me than a collapse of the agreement blamed on the U.S. Congress.