The Iran deal is political, and that’s OK

The Iran deal is political, and that’s OK

The Obama administration has negotiated a complicated, far-reaching international deal regarding Iran’s access to nuclear material. Now comes the hard part: dealing with Congress.

Substantively, the deal is pretty good; it’s certainly better than another endless war, for one thing. For another, there is no “coalition of the willing” for a war with Iran, or even for more economic cold war. The Obama administration deserves credit for shifting our major foreign policy initiatives back in the direction of diplomacy, but there’s a certain degree to which that change is just a recognition of international reality. You can’t impose a world-wide economic embargo against Iran if you’re the only major economic power that’s participating

The plan erects a means of policing Iranian nuclear policy that might actually work. For all the oppositional talk about the administration’s blind trust in Iran, this agreement is more about bringing an outlaw back under the authority of international law than it is about giving the Iranians carte blanche.

This deal is not a treaty, and therefore the Senate can’t completely scuttle it. The Congress does have the power, however, to vote to officially approve or disapprove of the deal, and the campaign regarding that vote is already underway.

What can we expect? Angus King, Maine’s junior Senator, has yet to make up his mind about the Iran deal, and he’s a little annoyed about his colleagues who decided their votes before the ink on the agreement was dry.  “If these people who announced [their opposition] an hour after the deal was announced were in a jury pool,” he said, “they’d be disqualified.”

While King is right that his Republican colleagues seem to have rejected the agreement out of hand and based on narrow partisan interests rather than an assessment of the plan on its merits or a real understanding of the consequences of a path that could lead to war, the jury metaphor he uses doesn’t quite fit.

Senator King’s comment is premised on the idea of a parallel between what a good jury does — deliberatively arrive at a decision on the basis of evidence and without bias — and what the Senate should do regarding a new international arrangement that profoundly effects the security of the United States and its allies. But there are some big difference between a jury and the U.S. Senate.

First of all, juries don’t advocate in regard to the evidence they consider. Attorneys present evidence, judges provide a legal context, and juries deliberate. Good senators, on the other hand, do their own homework, and can bring any amount of outside evidence to bear, and they do it precisely in order to advocate one position or another. Senators, after all, represent constituencies.

There are jurors out there in the world who bring their biases with them into their deliberations, and they are breaking the basic rules of American jurisprudence. But senators who begin policy debates with a clear idea of what their supporters already want are actually following one of the basic rules of American politics: they are, for good or ill, representing the preferences of at least some of their constituents.

Second, Juries act within a particular institutional context, and judges usually provide them with instructions to structure their deliberations. Despite what appears to be distinct governmental institutions in those flow charts that political science professors show in their introductory courses, the lines between executive, legislative, and judicial branches are often fairly blurry.

Despite the enormous differences between, say, the president and the Senate majority leader, the institutional players are forced to cooperate in order to do their jobs: rather than separation of powers, we really have separate branches forced to share powers. And the way they do that is affected by the politics of the moment.

This ebb and flow and sharing of powers has defined even the basic context of the vote on the nuclear disarmament plan. The vote will be simply to approve or disapprove of the agreement, and will be subject to a presidential veto.

In short, the conditions that created the Iran agreement, and that have led to the current debate about it in Congress, and that led to many senators making up their minds before they could read the agreement, were set by American politics more than American law.

Our major decisions are often the outcome, not of constitutional parsing or legal analysis (though those things have a part to play), but of the representation of interests, the persuasion among political players, and the evolving history of our governmental institutions. And that’s fine. Our governmental system depends upon political skill; politicians who disdain politics are acting in bad faith, because they’re holding their primary job requirement in contempt.

Senator, you’re a politician, and you’re good at it. That’s OK. Get over it.

This model of political representation also depends on constituents making their voices heard. Right now interests opposed to the disarmament plan are spending millions trying to influence the votes of King and other key senators. Now would be a good time for Mainers to weigh in as well.

About author

Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.


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