WASHINGTON — Fifty years ago this week, the world stood at the brink of a cataclysmic war. As the Cuban Missile Crisis grew more dangerous every day, President John F. Kennedy and his advisors directed quiet military and diplomatic efforts to avoid a disaster. Whatever their misgivings may have been, Congress trusted the president to do his job as commander in chief. At no point was he undermined by domestic political foes — a dynamic that was critical to a successful outcome.
If, however, President Kennedy had instead been the subject of political meddling, it’s not at all clear that he would have had the space available to negotiate a peaceful outcome with our adversaries in Moscow. And if he hadn’t done so, the result could have been nuclear Armageddon.
By contrast, today’s standoff with Iran offers an example of congressional political pressure that is aimed at forcing the hand of the commander in chief just as he seeks a peaceful resolution to our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
There is no doubt that Iran’s nuclear program is a very serious matter and that America has to consider every option to deal with this threat. This is the bipartisan policy of the United States, and President Obama has made it abundantly clear that “ … the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Resolving this issue diplomatically represents the best possible outcome for the United States. Such an agreement must ensure that Iran fully commits to not making a nuclear weapon and allows for international verification of this commitment. So why are some Members of Congress doing their utmost to make this outcome less likely?
Take for example Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who “plans to introduce a resolution next month that would call on the United States to support Israel ‘militarily, economically and diplomatically’ if the Jewish state launches a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities,” according to Congressional Quarterly (CQ). CQ added, “While previous resolutions have focused on U.S. policy toward Iran, Graham’s resolution would be the first to signal the Senate’s willingness to commit the United States to military action in response to an Israeli strike.”
What is the benefit of this potential resolution? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not called for war with Iran. His country’s national security elites oppose military strikes at this time. And the Israeli people prefer a peaceful solution. So why then would Congress consider making a statement that rhetorically promotes Israeli and American military action against Iran — a step that neither side currently wants?
And why would Graham consider offering a resolution that calls for military action only weeks after the Senate just passed another resolution — authored by Graham himself — condemning Iran’s nuclear program? That legislation states, “Nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war.” This resolution passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 90-1, largely because of its anti-war authorization language.
Importantly, Graham’s potential effort comes just days after former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — a man who served in top national security posts for both Republican and Democratic presidents — delivered a speech outlining the consensus view among America’s senior national security leaders that an Israeli attack has virtually no chance of comprehensively eliminating Iran’s nuclear program and that, “such an attack would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable. They would just bury the program deeper and make it more covert.”
In addition to this perspective, a recent report signed by more than 30 former military and national security heavyweights from both political parties reinforced this point by concluding that war with Iran would require a commitment of resources and personnel “greater than what the U.S. has expended over the last 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.”
The path forward is clear. A negotiated solution with Iran would likely involve an agreement establishing strict limits on Iran’s nuclear enrichment and a verifiable commitment to not make a nuclear weapon — a demand made by Prime Minister Netanyahu at the United Nations last month. It would be enforced by on-site intrusive monitoring of its program in exchange for some level of recognition of its ability to have a nuclear program and a concomitant easing of sanctions. Iranian performance in such a deal must be ironclad.
So rather than making the job for the president and America’s Iran negotiators more difficult, members of Congress should learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just like 50 years ago, our commander in chief needs political space to do what’s necessary to prevent a new war in the Middle East. What he doesn’t need is congressional encouragement of a military strike that may in fact accelerate Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)