The Constitution gives control over matters of war and peace to the president and Congress, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, as a “joint possession.” This pretty much guarantees continuing strife between the two branches. Yet after two centuries of a seesawing contest for primacy, lines have been crossed in the last year that take the relationship between the two branches into new territory. What has happened raises the question of whether the structure of political power in the United States today dangerously restricts what the country can aim to achieve abroad.
Never before has Congress openly tried to undermine a president in the midst of negotiation with a foreign adversary. In 2015 it did so twice: by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attack President Obama’s policy on Iran’s nuclear program before a joint session of Congress, and through an “open letter” to Iran’s leaders, drafted by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and signed by forty-six fellow Republican senators. The letter asserted (incorrectly) that any agreement not approved by Congress would have no legal validity and threatened to overturn it at the legislature’s will. Knowing, as the senators did, that Iran’s Supreme Leader and political elite were already deeply skeptical of Washington’s trustworthiness and of the administration’s ability to fulfill a deal, the letter appeared designed to strengthen the deal’s opponents in Tehran.
Later in the year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who also signed the Cotton letter) tried to derail another major negotiation. He dispatched an aide to meet with foreign emissaries to describe the GOP’s plans to overturn any deal reached at the upcoming Paris summit on climate change. “The president’s international negotiating partners,” McConnell warned, “should proceed with caution before entering into an unattainable deal…because commitments the president makes there would rest on a house of cards of his own making.” Both interventions—on Iran and climate—were made while the outcome of these negotiations was very much in doubt.
It is true that something similar may have happened before—in Richard Nixon’s efforts to derail a cease-fire negotiation with the North Vietnamese during the 1968 presidential campaign, and in an alleged deal between Ronald Reagan and Ayatollah Khomeini to delay release of the American hostages in Iran until after the 1980 election. The intense secrecy that surrounded both episodes is the point: the interventions were recognized as far beyond the pale. In a taped phone conversation between President Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Everett…
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