A Reality Check on Iran Policy and U.S. Campaign Politics

Obama's criticism of the Kyl-Lieberman resolution and refusal to join with his Democratic colleagues on the letter to the president appear to be based more on the politics than the substance.
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On November 1, 30 Democratic senators, led by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, delivered a strong letter to President Bush in response to his increasingly bellicose language on Iran. The letter informs the president that he does not have the authority to take military action against Iran without prior, specific authorization from the Congress. This message follows up on the bill proposed by Senator Webb and co-sponsored by Senator Hillary Clinton requiring congressional authorization for the use of military force on Iran. Senator Clinton, in fact, first proposed that the administration could not act without a wholly new authorization in a floor speech on February 14.

The November 1 letter directly addresses the Kyl-Lieberman non-binding resolution, which declares a sense of the Senate that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, an autonomous force within the Iranian military structure, is a terrorist organization. The resolution also makes explicit that it is a diplomatic sanction, not in any way to be interpreted as a basis for military action. During the debate, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois deleted reference to "military instrumentalities" and added: "Nothing in this Act should be construed as giving the president the authority to use military force against Iran."

Durbin explained, "I am opposed to military action in Iran. To say we need to pressure the Iranians to change their course in the Middle East and I want to do it by nonmilitary means, that's what my vote was all about.''

As those who voted for its final Durbin version, including Senator Clinton, have made clear, the resolution is an attempt to inject a diplomatic element into a situation fraught with potential danger. This measure is just one of the appropriate tools at our disposal, and there should be other diplomatic initiatives, as Senator Clinton has proposed: strengthening multilateral negotiations and opening direct bilateral relations with Iran. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has not adopted the comprehensive diplomatic approach proposed by Senator Clinton.

The November 1 letter reinforces the actual language of the Durbin amended version of Kyl-Lieberman, calls for broad diplomacy of the kind advocated by Senator Clinton and puts the Bush administration on notice that it has no authorization for the use of military force against Iran. The letter states that the Kyl-Lieberman resolution "should in no way be interpreted as a predicate for the use of military force in Iran. We stand ready to work with your administration to address the challenges presented by Iran in a manner that safeguards our security interests and promotes a regional diplomatic solution, but we wish to emphasize that offensive military action should not be taken against Iran without the express consent of Congress."

Given these facts, distorted criticism of those senators who voted for the Durbin version of Kyl-Lieberman, especially Senator Clinton, and refusal to sign the November 1 letter lacks merit on the substance.

Senator Barack Obama was absent when the vote on Kyl-Lieberman was taken, though that has not prevented him from criticizing colleagues who participated in the debate and voted for it. He has also opted not to sign the letter to the president. Since then, he has repeatedly argued for direct presidential talks with the Iranian leadership with no preconditions. Rather than reinforcing diplomatic options, his actions have the effect of eschewing diplomatic efforts to bring the Revolutionary Guard to heel, while placing all his bets for peaceful coexistence with Iran in the future on his own charisma and charm.

He has also made clear that for him the paramount enemy is George W. Bush, not an organization that has a history of involvement in terrorism and has been actively targeting American troops in Iraq.

As one who practiced diplomacy on behalf of our country for decades, including as the acting ambassador in Iraq during Desert Shield, where I personally confronted Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, Senator Obama's approach seems to me to misunderstand diplomacy. Needless to say, profound distrust of Bush and the administration is more than merited. I yield to nobody in my own efforts to bring their lies to public attention. But the Durbin version of Kyl-Lieberman and the November 1 letter are clear in drawing lines in not granting the Bush administration authority it does not have.

The administration has rightly been criticized for its refusal to use the broad array of tools at our disposal other than military action in the conduct of national security. War has been its first, second and final option -- its preferred option -- with disastrous results. Successful policy-making requires the use of complex diplomacy, carrots and sticks -- incentives, such as structured talks, and disincentives, such as sanctions against rogue elements. Coping with the Bush administration should not cause us to ignore at our peril very real adversaries that would do us harm. These clearly include Iran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Senator Obama's criticism of the vote and refusal to join with his Democratic colleagues on the letter to the president appear to be based more on the politics than the substance. The entire Senate was notified a day beforehand about the vote on the Kyl-Lieberman resolution. If he truly had a sense of urgency on the issue he should have made a point of participating in the debate and voting, when he would have had the opportunity at the time to air his substantive disagreement with his home state colleague Senator Durbin, rather than waiting to raise the issue afterwards in a purely political context and using it as a campaign tactic.

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