Knowing How to Play the Game

Two outs, bases loaded in a tie game, the bottom of the ninth – and there’s that high pop fly to shallow right. Three guys converge on it, shouting something or other to each other, and they run into each other, landing on their asses. The ball drops in for a hit. The guy on third scoots home. The game is lost and the manager shouts out that classic line – “Does anyone here know how to play this game?”

That’s a good all-purpose line. It’s useful in politics too. Someone should have shouted it to the congressional Republicans in 2013 – that two-week government shutdown backfired. It didn’t force Obama to end Obamacare. It just pissed people off and cost a lot of money – and Obama could wait, as more and more vital services shut down. Everyone knew who was making life miserable for them, to get what they couldn’t get with votes or court decisions – the Republicans. Did they want to make themselves look like spoiled brats? They decided they didn’t want that. They gave in. They got nothing. That’s not how you play the game.

They may not know how to play this game. Everyone remembers this past March and the day the leader of the free world came to the United States to address a Joint Session of Congress, to upbraid and shame the young and hopelessly naïve president – invited to do so by the few remaining Real Americans. That would be the Republicans of course. Everything had been arranged. The leader of the free world was invited to come, and to set things straight, behind our useless president’s back. There was no need to tell him what was up – and the Real Americans would thus show the rest of the other whining and useless Americans, who voted the wrong way, twice, what a real leader does, or at least what a real leader says. That seemed to be the general idea. After this, no one would ever vote for a Democrat again, not even for dogcatcher.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel would speak on how the Obama deal with Iran, to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program, was awful. America could be tougher. America could force a better deal, forcing Iran to change everything they did. All it took was a leader with balls. Everyone knows this.

That’s why National Review columnist Quin Hillyer wrote that “Netanyahu, not Obama, speaks for us” and called him “the leader of the free world” – as if Netanyahu was his president, not Obama. There was a lot of that sort of thing and it backfired – we have our own president, thank you very much. One of the rules of the game seems to be that you don’t tell the American people to reject their own president and do exactly what some foreign leader says, even the leader of Israel, the Holy Land. Americans are picky that way. Oops.

Two weeks earlier, forty-seven Republican senators sent a signed letter to Iran’s leaders warning them against cutting a nuclear deal with the Obama administration. Any deal that is not approved by the Congress is nothing more than an executive agreement between Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke that with the stroke of a pen, and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time. The first sentence said it all – “It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.”

Ah, yes – Congress has all the power. Congress can reject agreements a president makes. They’re not worth much, and he is only their servant after all – and so on and so forth.

The backlash was severe – folks called them traitors and invoked the Logan Act and whatnot. You don’t go telling foreign powers that you, not the president, represent the United States. There are laws against that. There are rules. Does anyone here know how to play this game?

Obama does. The high pop fly dropped when these guys ran into each other, and they lost the game:

Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland on Wednesday came out in support of President Obama’s Iran nuclear accord, the 34th Democrat in favor. Her decision gives Mr. Obama the votes needed to assure the deal will survive a congressional challenge.

“Some have suggested we reject this deal and impose unilateral sanctions to force Iran back to the table. But maintaining or stepping up sanctions will only work if the sanction coalition holds together,” Ms. Mikulski, the longest serving female senator in history, said in a statement.

“It’s unclear if the European Union, Russia, China, India and others would continue sanctions if Congress rejects this deal. At best, sanctions would be porous or limited to unilateral sanctions by the U.S.”

And that was that:

Ms. Mikulski’s decision came a day after Senators Chris Coons of Delaware and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania also announced they would support the deal. With 34 senators favoring the accord between Iran and six world powers limiting the country’s nuclear program, opponents may still be able to pass a resolution disapproving the deal later this month, but they do not have the votes to override Mr. Obama’s promised veto.

And with momentum on their side, the White House and Senate Democrats next week hope to find seven more votes to filibuster the Republican resolution of disapproval. That would ensure the resolution would never leave the Senate, and Mr. Obama would not be forced to use a veto.

Despite the continuing rancor on Capitol Hill, there was also growing recognition, even among some accord opponents, that the other nations – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, and especially Iran – would be unwilling to renegotiate the agreement even if Congress formally rejected it.

They recognized that this wasn’t the game everyone thought it was. George Bisharat, a professor emeritus at the UC Hastings College of the Law up in Sacramento, and John Whitbeck, a Paris-based international lawyer, explain what the game really is:

Democrats, including President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, apparently also take for granted that it is within American power to kill the deal. During his recent grilling by Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry predicted that if Congress passed a resolution against the deal and then overrode a presidential veto, the deal would be dead and Iran would then sprint toward a nuclear bomb, triggering an attack by Israel and igniting a catastrophic new war into which the United States might irresistibly be drawn.

Perhaps this was a case of fighting overheated rhetoric with equally overheated rhetoric, but it seems legally, logically and politically wrong. Neither a congressional resolution of disapproval nor a veto override will, or can, kill the deal.

It seems that we don’t matter:

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna on July 14 is not a bilateral agreement between Iran and the United States. It is a multilateral agreement signed by seven countries (China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, Britain and the United States). Its merits being clear, it was subsequently endorsed by a unanimous resolution of the U.N. Security Council, and only one of the U.N.’s 193 member states – Israel – is publicly opposed to it.

This multilateral executive agreement signed by the United States is not a treaty; it does not require Senate ratification to be binding on the United States. Still, Congress could cause the United States to breach its obligations under the agreement by not releasing Iranian funds held in U.S.-controlled banks and by not lifting unilateral American sanctions against Iran.

However, this would not nullify the deal for other signatories. It would simply constitute a decision to opt out and not participate in the agreement, reminiscent of earlier American opt-outs from the League of Nations and the International Criminal Court. The other signatories would be perfectly free to honor the Iran deal and would be far more likely to do so than to follow the U.S. example.

We’d be left out and powerless:

Iran has every incentive to uphold the deal and, by doing so, reap the benefits of its reintegration in the global community and the world economy. An American opt-out would only serve to isolate the U.S. and prove to the world that its word cannot be trusted. …

Since World War II, American leaders have felt a right and an obligation to lead the world. Were the United States to isolate itself over the Iran nuclear deal, it would not risk imminent war but, rather, grave damage to its credibility and potential for future world leadership.

That’s a game you don’t want to lose, so there was this:

Just before the Senate left town for its August break, a dozen or so undecided Democrats met in the Capitol with senior diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia who delivered a blunt, joint message: Their nuclear agreement with Iran was the best they could expect. The five world powers had no intention of returning to the negotiating table.

“They basically said unanimously this is as good a deal as you could get and we are moving ahead with it,” recalled Senator Chris Coons, the Delaware Democrat who lent crucial support to the deal this week despite some reservations. “They were clear and strong that we will not join you in re-imposing sanctions.”

For many if not most Democrats, it was that message that ultimately solidified their decisions, leading to President Obama on Wednesday securing enough votes to put the agreement in place over fierce and united Republican opposition. One after another, lawmakers pointed to the warnings from foreign leaders that their own sanctions against Iran would be lifted regardless of what the United States did.

Doug Mataconis covers the rest:

With Senate support sufficient to stop a veto override in place, the question now will become whether Democrats will have enough votes to filibuster the initial Disapproval Resolution, thus preventing a Senate vote before the expiration of the 60 day review period. With 34 confirmed votes, and possibly as many as 36 votes if Senators Blumenthal and Manchin end up supporting the deal as they have hinted in the past, Democrats need seven of the remaining nine undecided Democrats to vote for cloture. Even if all or most of these Senators end up supporting the deal, it’s not guaranteed that they’ll support a filibuster. Delaware Senator Chris Coons, for example, has said that he would prefer to see the Senate have an up-or-down vote on the bill even though he supports the deal. If even just a handful of other Democrats feel the same way, then they might vote with the GOP to allow the resolution to pass cloture and proceed to a final vote.

However the vote counting turns out on Capitol Hill goes, though, the result is the same – the deal will go forward, starting with the end of certain sanctions against Tehran and the beginnings of the inspection regime.

The game is over, or it’s not:

Several GOP presidential candidates have threatened to “terminate this deal on day one,” as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did again Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Walker said he was sending a “clear message today” to the rest of the world that if he won the White House, tough sanctions would be imposed on Tehran. And he warned America’s negotiating partners and other nations that start dealing with Tehran: “If you want to do business, you have got to decide, are you going to do it with Iran or are you going to do it with America?”

We could cut off all trade with China, France, Germany, Russia, and Britain – no goods and services would flow either way with any of them. How would they like that?

American corporations might be a bit unhappy with that, and American consumers, but there’s this:

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) have a pending bill to authorize a 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act, which expires next year. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said last month that the sanctions extension would be brought up and passed after the debate on the nuclear pact.

Iranian officials have said that extending the authorization for sanctions could be considered a violation of the agreement.

Not that it matters – everyone else will keep to the agreement. We’ll just do our Cuba thing on Iran – except we just gave that up after more than fifty years, because it didn’t accomplish a thing. Unilateral sanctions, when everyone else is engaged in trade and talk, don’t damage their target. They only make the sole sanctioning nation look foolish, and tiresomely self-righteous. Everyone else has moved on.

The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman says that’s the real shift here:

If you’re too young to remember the time before the Iraq War turned into a disaster, you may not realize the state of constant fear Democrats used to live in when it came to national security. Particularly since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Republicans were always ready to ridicule them as being “soft” – soft on defense, soft on the communists, soft on anything involving foreign threats. After 9/11, this attack went into a higher gear, as did Democrats’ fear that any show of softness would instantly be met with, “Why are you on the terrorists’ side?” and “Why don’t you support our troops?”

That’s why it was widely understood among Democrats in 2002 that no one with any national ambitions could vote against the Iraq War when the drums were beating so loudly. With only one exception (Florida’s Bob Graham), all the Senate Democrats who would run for president in 2004 or 2008 voted Yea, including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry. Everyone assumed that was the only safe vote to take. And when Kerry became the party’s nominee in 2004, he centered his entire campaign on the story of his service in Vietnam, on the theory that a couple of chicken hawks like George Bush and Dick Cheney would never attack the patriotism of a war hero (that theory proved to be mistaken).

Now it’s time to take some risks:

The failure of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars enabled Democrats to feel that they didn’t have to constantly bend over backward to show that they’re tough, when toughness is what cost the country so much in recent years. But the Iran debate put that belief to the test. That’s because for Democrats, there really is some risk in supporting this deal.

If the agreement proves to be a failure – let’s say that Iran manages to conduct a nuclear weapons program in secret, then announces to the world that they have a nuclear weapon – it will indeed be front-page news, and the Democrats who supported the deal might suffer grave political consequences. So in order to vote yes, they had to look seriously at the deal and its alternatives, and accept some long term political peril.

They will vote yes, making the gamble, even if no Republican had to risk anything:

It’s true that if the deal does achieve its goals, it will be added to a list of things on which Republicans were spectacularly wrong, but which led them to change their opinions not a whit. The Iraq War didn’t have an appreciable impact on their views about the wisdom of starting new military engagements in the Middle East. Nor did their failed predictions about Bill Clinton’s tax-increasing 1993 budget (they all said it would cause a “job-killing recession” and every one of them voted against it) and George Bush’s tax cuts (they said the cuts would lead to an explosion of economic growth) alter their views on what effect tax increases have on the economy.

But if the deal works as intended, what will be the outcome be? Iran without nuclear weapons, of course, but that is a state of being rather than an event. There will be no blaring headlines saying, “Iran Still Has No Nukes – Dems Proven Right!” Five or ten years from now, Republicans will continue to argue that the deal was dreadful even if Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been contained.

Maybe these guys do know how to play the game:

My guess is that now that the practical fight over this deal is essentially over, Republicans won’t bother to keep arguing about it too much. In the primaries, the presidential candidates will throw in a perfunctory line or two in their speeches about how awful it is, how they’ll tear it up on their first day in office, and how it shows that Democrats are weak. But with the deal now facing the lengthy task of implementation and no substantive victory possible for them, they won’t see much to be gained in harping on it. But they’ll probably continue to believe that calling Democrats weak on national security is tremendously effective, even if the Democrats themselves aren’t as afraid of that attack as they used to be.

That’s the traditional game and Kevin Drum adds this:

In a way, it’s actually worse than this. Even if Iran doesn’t get nukes there will be endless opportunities to raise alarms that it’s going to happen any day now. Israeli leaders have been warning that Iran is three months away from a nuclear bomb for over two decades. There will always be new studies, new developments, and new conflicts that provide excuses for hysterical Fox News segments telling us we’re all about to die at the hands of the ayatollahs. To see this in action, just take a look at Obamacare. All the top line evidence suggests it’s working surprisingly well. Maybe better than even its own supporters thought it would. But that hasn’t stopped a torrent of alarming reports that provide countless pretexts for predicting Obamacare’s imminent doom. Premiums are going up 40 percent! Workers’ hours are being slashed! You won’t be able to see your family doctor anymore! Death panels!

So have no worries. Iran could be nuclear free in 2050 and Bill Kristol’s grandkids will still be warning everyone else’s grandkids that the ayatollahs are this close to getting a bomb. It’s kind of soothing, in a way, like a squeaky door that you’d miss if you ever oiled it.

Does that mean they win? In a way they do – they know how to play that game – but that’s the only victory they get. The rest of us get a better world. Everyone else is now playing a different game.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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