Political Legitimacy: Practicing that which is Preached

A recent MENASource article addressed the issue of chronic political illegitimacy—the absence of consensus, derived from consent of the governed, on the rules of the political game—that plagues most of the states of the Arab world. Now that forty-seven Senate Republicans have affixed their signatures to an “open letter” purporting to instruct the Islamic Republic of Iran on the advisability (or lack thereof) of entering into an executive agreement with the United States, one must wonder if the hard-won legitimacy of the US political system is now being tested. One thing is sure: engagement with Iranians is not bringing out the best in Americans.

Like all of the forty-seven, plus many of the remaining fifty-three, I have concerns about a looming nuclear agreement with Iran. These concerns have less to do with the technical ways and means of extending Iran’s breakout time to weaponization than with the willingness of the Obama administration and its successors to monitor and enforce compliance vigorously while working effectively with allies and partners to reverse Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. The flaccidly apathetic response of the Obama administration and nearly all of its allies to Iranian depredations in Syria and elsewhere makes one wonder about the West’s appetite for confronting Tehran on any basis. The spillover effect onto the nuclear issue is unavoidable.

Indeed, the administration’s theory of the case seems to be that a nuclear agreement will, in time, bring Iran in from the cold; it will help Iran realize that it can offer its self-styled civilizing influence to the Arab world in ways not as unpleasant as facilitating mass murder by Syria’s Assad regime, or enabling its Lebanese adherents to become the Levantine branch of murder incorporated. Is this latest attempt to empower “Iranian moderates” more realistic than its predecessor was thirty years ago? Perhaps it is. But how many more Syrians will die before the case is decided one way or the other? How many more Lebanese political figures will be murdered before Iran voluntarily appreciates the error of its ways?

Even if the administration is wrong about the presumed side-benefits of a nuclear deal, it does not follow that a deal itself would necessarily be corrupt or stupid. But the perception that the administration—as a practical matter, rhetoric to the side—finds Iranian regional adventurism to be just fine as long as the nuclear talks are on track unnerves people who might otherwise be content to leave nuclear matter in the hands of capable diplomats coached by technical experts who actually know what they’re talking about.

Likewise, the administration’s self-serving flexibility on congressional prerogatives unhinges people, including forty-seven senators. In September 2013, President Barack Obama developed, as the late golfing great Sam Snead would have put it, “a case of the yips”—an inability to pull the trigger militarily in response to a massive, red-line defiant chemical attack by the Assad regime on Syrian civilians.

The president decided—quite properly in my view at the time—that he needed the advice and consent of Congress before ordering US forces into combat abroad. So he tossed a red hot potato over to Capitol Hill before grabbing the chemical weapons agreement lifeline thrown by Moscow: an agreement that removed one weapon of mass murder while ignoring all of the others, thereby inadvertently facilitating an ever-growing humanitarian abomination.

Now that the president can almost taste an Iranian nuclear agreement in the final stages of preparation and savor mentally the salutary effect it would have on his foreign policy legacy, the role he would assign Congress would be one of mechanically lifting sanctions in accordance with the terms of an executive agreement. Advice and consent? Who needs it now? Ratification by two-thirds of a Senate quorum? Why, when it might fall short?

Even in seeking an authorization for the use of military force against ISIS, the administration treats Congress as if it is a constitutional footnote. The message is one of contempt: we already have the requisite authorities, but if you folks would like to pile on to demonstrate national unity, you are welcome to do so. Otherwise, have a nice day.

No one is performing well in this unseemly drama. The United States Congress should leave the execution of foreign policy in the hands of the executive branch, focusing its own input on the power of the purse and the many manifestations of advice and consent. The executive branch would do well to consult relentlessly and genuinely with Capitol Hill, listening well and engaging in dialogue instead of reciting by rote rehearsed talking points. When a Democratic Party senator—a friend and supporter of the administration—says privately that White House meetings feature one-way communication and wasted time, someone in that White House ought to take notice.

Political legitimacy is not merely the subject of a lecture focusing on the politics of the Middle East and North Africa. There was nothing inevitable set in motion 800 years ago by the Magna Carta. To President Obama’s sorely aggrieved Republican detractors: please exercise restraint. You cannot disrespect his office, undermine his constitutional prerogatives, and also properly execute your oaths of office. To the administration: the founding fathers put the powers and responsibilities of Congress in Article I—not Article II or III—of the Constitution. This was not an accident. To treat the Congress as an irritant or inconvenience is not consistent with upholding and defending the Constitution.

The states of the Middle East and North Africa have long and difficult struggles ahead of them as they search for formulas whereby consent of the governed can be harnessed to produce political legitimacy. The United States may be able to help, but only if its political leaders do not squander that which has taken nearly 240 years—including a horrific civil war—to build. The American political class seems to be increasingly influenced by actors who deem their opponents not only as incorrect on issues, but as illegitimate in the exercise of their constitutional prerogatives. A giant step back by all concerned is very much in order.

Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.