Anyone who has followed the Senate's handling of health care reform can't help but be impressed (or depressed) by the glacial pace at which things move in that place. In fact, it appears that Senate sloth contributed mightily to the failure of reform (by comparison, the House is a model of streamlined efficiency).
But the Senate can and does move with dispatch when it wants to (or is unable to resist the pressure to move). Sometimes a president can get the Senate to move as quickly as he wants. FDR and LBJ were famous for that. More often than Presidents, powerful interest groups can light a fire under the self-proclaimed "world's most deliberative body."
For instance, just last week the Senate passed comprehensive sanctions on Iran -- a bill being pushed by AIPAC neocons and the other "usual suspects" -- in record time. It was brought up with only three senators on the floor; there was a five minute debate and it passed by voice vote. Just like that.
Not everyone was happy that it passed by voice vote. It's an election year and senators want some Iran-bashing credit with their donors.
They needn't worry. The bill will be back soon enough in the form of a House-Senate conference bill. Since both the House and Senate bills are almost equally hawkish, senators who want to demonstrate their anti-Iran fervor to both lobbyists and donors will have ample opportunity to do so.
The White House did not want the Senate to act now. It is still hoping to resolve the stalemate with Iran over its nuclear development diplomatically or, failing that, it wants to join our allies -- plus Russia and maybe China -- in imposing multilateral sanctions.
It fears that unilateral sanctions would have the effect of derailing multilateral action.
Also, the president wants to have the discretion to apply sanctions as the national interest requires, deliberately and not with a sledgehammer. The House sanctions bill eliminates any Presidential discretion and would force him to apply sanctions in any and every situation that meets the all-encompassing Congressional criteria.
But Congress waits for no president when it comes to certain issues (often involving the Middle East), especially in election years. So we now have bills in both chambers that will impress the lobbyists they were designed to impress (and who helped craft the bills) without likely doing much of anything to constrain Iran's nuclear ambitions. Similarly, they will not harm the people they are meant to harm while hurting innocent Iranians instead.
The Congressional sanctions bills target Iran's imports of refined petroleum (gasoline and other refined products) which Iranians use to power their cars and heat their homes. Iran, for all its raw petroleum, has very little refining capacity so it depends on imports. Under the provisions of the Congressional bills, no refined products could legally get into Iran, leaving its economy crippled (that, at least, is the hope of its sponsors),
Congress appears indifferent to the impact this would have ordinary Iranian people.
Imagine if a foreign country could block gasoline sales to the United States. Who would suffer? Actually, we know the answer from experience. As gas prices here have dramatically risen over the past decade or so, it has been the average income or lower income Americans who have been hurt most. The wealthy can afford to pay and so can the powerful. It's the "working stiff" who can't make ends meet. For the rich and powerful, four, five or even ten dollar a gallon gas would have no impact.
It's no different in Iran. A gas cutoff would gravely harm the powerless and benefit the powerful, especially the all-powerful Revolutionary Guard which corners the market on contraband and would make out like the thuggish bandits they are.
What a strange time to be punishing the average Iranian. It is as if the sponsors of these bills (which were drafted before the stolen Iranian election) are unaware that millions of Iranians have taken to the street to fight against the Khameini regime.
If there is one thing that could save the establishment, it would be the punishment of Iranians, as a people, from outside.
And that is what these sanctions would do. It would inflict pain, but, like the Israeli blockade of Gaza, it would not bring the government down. (If Hamas can withstand much worse sanctions than anything we could impose on Iran, how can anyone imagine that gas sanctions would topple the Iranian regime?)
Punishing civilians, specifically the collective punishment of innocent civilians, is not only counterproductive, it is immoral.
Take the sanctions already in place which ban the sale of spare or replacement airplane parts to Iran. In 2005, a report prepared for the International Civil Aviation Organization predicted that the lives of civilian Iranian passengers were endangered by those sanctions and that innocent people would die in crashes.
Writing in the Guardian (London) this week, correspondent James Denselow said that the crashes and deaths are already happening.
"Last month more than 40 passengers were injured when an IranianTupolev 154 crash-landed at Mashhad. Another Russian-built Tupolev crashed last year en route to Armenia, killing all 168 on board. Iran has a poor aviation safety record, with numerous crashes since US aviation sanctions prevented it from buying more reliable western planes in 1995. The question that arises from these incidents is whether banning civilian airline parts represents 'smart' sanctions that are intended to maximise the pressure on the ruling regime while limiting their unintended side effects, or whether it puts the lives of innocent travellers of all nationalities at risk."
The answer is obvious. There is nothing smart about collective punishment, nothing smart about punishing the innocent in the vain hope that some of the guilty will also feel pain. And there is nothing smart about punishing a nation which is in the midst of a revolution, with people dying to overthrow a horrific regime.
These bills punish the revolutionaries -- along with every other Iranian -- and make their mission more difficult.
Historically, countries rally behind even the most loathsome governments when faced by outside threat. Even the utter destruction of Dresden and other German cities by the allies did not reduce Hitler's hold on the people. Quite the contrary.
Fortunately, Ahmadinejad and Khameini's hold on the Iranian people is already weak. Every action America and our allies take should be designed with the goal of making it even weaker. Instead, we come up with a strategy that does not distinguish between the loathsome regime and the people who are suffering under it and thereby undercuts the opposition.
Smart sanctions would help bring down the Iranian regime or, at the very least, make it more open to negotiations over its nuclear plans. To be "smart," however, they must target the regime and not the Iranian people. The House and Senate passed sanctions are not only dumb, they are the very kind of sanctions Ahmadinejad would devise if it was up to him.
Congress should either come up with something smart or butt out. The President can handle this one without their politically-motivated input.
Some inside scoop on the bill's passage: The administration had four amendments to considerably weaken the bill and restore the president's authority. But AIPAC was strongly opposed to them.
And under the streamlined procedure, no amendments were allowed.
But then John McCain had his own amendment to make the bill even tougher. And he went into his usual teeth-gnashing, howling tantrum demanding that Reid allow his amendment to be considered.
But, if they considered McCain, then the four administration amendments would be considered too. And the lobbyists desperately didn't want that.
So they dispatched droopy Joe Lieberman, McCain's best friend forever, to explain that if they allowed his amendment then the President's concerns might be addressed too.
The two bosom buddies wept over this Sophie's Choice situation for awhile and then McCain gave in, with the assurance that his amendment would be considered later.
Another win for the champ, AIPAC! Another loss for America. See this for part of the story.