Arms control has often been a bone of contention between the White House and Congress. Presidents and their diplomats prefer to reach agreements in secret and then shield the accord from congressional scrutiny, much less consent. It is all too tempting for the Obama administration to follow this script as it negotiates with Iran. But that would be a mistake. Notwithstanding partisan difficulties, seeking congressional endorsement is essential lest any agreement rest on a shaky foundation and be difficult to implement.
Two of President Obama’s predecessors offer a path worthy of emulation. Harry Truman did much to anchor the institutions of the Cold War in a durable domestic consensus. Richard Nixon, in turn, created the modern arms-control architecture and managed to persuade both parties on the importance of nuclear restraint.
Truman appreciated that, for the United States to awaken fully from its isolationist torpor, he had to bring along a Republican Party skeptical of international engagement. He cultivated influential Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (Mich.) and paid close attention to their advice and suggestions. Even a fierce partisan such as John Foster Dulles was included in the Truman administration’s inner circle on issues such as the peace treaty with Japan and the establishment of NATO. As a result of these efforts, key initiatives such as the creation of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan enjoyed widespread support from across the aisle — even though bipartisan support could not be assumed at that time. It is worth recalling that, for the Republican Party, membership in global organizations and offering aid to foreign countries had once been anathema.
At this point, the Obama administration’s Iran policy rests on no such national consensus. The president can do much to alter this reality by offering detailed briefings on the Hill and even including Republican staffers in U.S. delegations to the P5+1 talks.
Although Nixon is remembered today mostly for the opening to China and ending the Vietnam War, he did much to temper the nuclear arms race at the height of the Cold War. Nixon could have sought to protect his signature achievement, SALT I, from congressional scrutiny by claiming presidential authority. To be sure, the Arms Control and Disarmament Act of 1961 stressed that all agreements limiting the U.S. arsenal had to be subject to congressional affirmation. Still, SALT I was an executive agreement, and if he wanted to, Nixon could have made a murky case for not seeking Congress’s sanction. He thought better of it and submitted the agreement for approval. That meant negotiating with the formidable Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.) and taking his concerns into consideration. The process may have been tortuous, but the result was a public law that enshrined the agreement in statute.
One point that may enhance the Obama administration’s ability to bring Congress along would be to offer an explanation about the consequence of cheating by Iran if there is an agreement. Given Congress’s deep distrust of Iran’s leaders, any deal is likely to be far more credible on the Hill if the administration has a clear plan to deal with cheating. Such a plan could go beyond the imposition of harsh sanctions and include congressional authorization for the use of force to respond to violations of the agreement. In this way, the administration would demonstrate resolve while also having Congress show its support for use of force — a message that the Iranians would be unlikely to miss.
In this sense, Congress, too, must bear a burden of a measure of responsibility and appreciate that it cannot just criticize. Although the Constitution privileges the president in the realm of foreign affairs, Congress is not without prerogatives of its own. At times, Congress has embraced an assertive role when it came to proliferation. Among the proponents of such legislative activism was no less than Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., who in 2002, in an impressive gesture of bipartisanship, drafted a letter with arch-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) insisting that the George W. Bush administration submit for congressional authorization its contemplated nuclear agreement with Russia. The looming shadow of an Iranian bomb is no less important, and Congress needs to press its claims on this issue with no less force.
As the negotiations between Iran and the United States enter critical stages, Washington needs to develop a bipartisan consensus about parameters of an acceptable agreement. No such consensus can come about without the two branches of government and the two political parties working together. This will require the White House to take into account Congress’s perspective and heed its warnings. The failure to do so could mean that any agreement negotiated by Obama will not survive his presidency.
Eric Edelman is a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and served as undersecretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration. Dennis B. Ross is a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and served as a special assistant to President Obama from 2009 to 2011. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.