October 29, 2006

Just One Party: The War Party

The same old, murderously destructive song:
Four weeks ago, Congress enacted and President Bush signed the Iran Freedom Support Act, a resolution very much in the spirit of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. It mandates sanctions against any country aiding Iran's nuclear programs, even those to which that country is legally entitled under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The new law got virtually no coverage in the congressional rush to adjourn and amid the controversy surrounding e-mails between Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and teenage boys serving in the House page program. It has been overshadowed since by North Korea's explosion of a nuclear device and the world's debate about how to respond.

But if the confrontation over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program ends in war — initiated by this administration or the next — you can bet this law will be cited as proof that Congress was onboard all along.


[A]t a time when a majority of Americans have turned against the Iraq war, when Bush's long advantage on national security issues is under fire and when Democrats dream of wresting control of not just the House of Representatives but the Senate too, the most extraordinary parallel to the pre-Iraq-war environment is that so many Democrats have given the administration a vote on Iran that amounts to yet another blank-check endorsement of U.S. unilateralism — even as diplomats struggle in New York to craft a multilateral approach to Iran.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) voted for the Iran Freedom Support Act. So did House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). So did all but 21 members of the House and every member of the Senate, which approved the measure by unanimous voice vote.

The law they backed codifies existing U.S. sanctions against Iran — and extends those sanctions to any countries or companies deemed to have aided Iran in the development or acquisition of nuclear weapons or of "destabilizing numbers and types" of advanced conventional weapons. It states the sense of Congress that the United States shall not enter into any form of cooperation with the government of any country that so aids Iran, unless and until Iran has suspended all uranium enrichment-related and reprocessing-related nuclear activity and has "committed to verifiably refrain from such activity in the future" — even though such activities are permitted under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Democrats who voted for the measure were at pains to distinguish it from the Iraq Liberation Act, noting, for example, that the legislation specifically rejected military aid to opponents of Iran's current government, and that it calls for Iran's "democratic transformation," not regime change. Among those who favor both, however, this is seen as little more than a wink and a nod.


In 1998, the Clinton administration went along with the Iraq Liberation Act reluctantly, fearing that the law's stark anti-Saddam Hussein line would tie its hands. Republican leaders were demanding a tough line, and Democrats, facing midterm elections in the shadow of President Clinton's pending impeachment, were eager to go along.

For all its bellicose rhetoric on Iran, the Bush administration appeared to have similar reservations about the Iran Freedom Support Act. It staved off congressional action for more than a year, contending that mandatory sanctions would short-circuit the delicate diplomacy of taking Iran to the U.N. Security Council. To critics within the administration, the law raised the specter of U.S. unilateralism at a moment when Washington needed allies more than ever.

The administration eventually gave in to congressional insistence on tough talk — not just from Republicans but from Democrats, the latter seizing the chance to draw a foreign policy red line while at the same time assailing Bush for wasting lives and dollars in Iraq.

Smart politics? Most Republicans and most Democrats appear to believe that it is — that it's a good idea to take Iran off the table, to make sure it doesn't figure as an issue in the Nov. 7 elections. It's reminiscent of the decision many of them made before the midterms in 1998 and again in 2002, when the bipartisan vote authorizing use of force against Iraq made the looming war almost a nonissue in that year's midterm elections.

Maybe this time, on Iran, someone will yet decide that it's worth taking the debate to the people.
Two other points should be mentioned. People already seem to have forgotten that the alleged unsustainability of sanctions -- and the fact that sanctions usually do not have the intended effect, but often the precise opposite -- was one of the major reasons offered in support of the invasion of Iraq. That argument was a particular favorite among "liberal hawks."

We also must never forget the terrible human costs of sanctions. See this, about the morally repellent Madeleine Albright, and this, about the grave immorality of sanctions more generally. The justification for economic sanctions is always that they will force governments to act in the desired manner (desired by those nations that believe they have the "right" to call all the shots, that is) -- while the costs are almost never paid by the governments in question, but by innocent civilians.

For links to my major essays about the Iran "crisis," see the conclusion of this post.