By Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Those who criticize President Barack Obama's weak foreign policy (as I have done often) have been looking for smarter ideas from prospective candidates for 2016. Judging by Lettergate — the bizarre tale of the missive sent by Sen. Tom Cotton and 46 Republican colleagues to Iran's ayatollahs — the Republicans aren't ready for prime time.
Take a look at the broader implications of the letter and you'll see why.
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What was most disturbing about the letter was the carelessness with which it was dispatched. It freaked out our European allies, who are deeply involved in the Iran talks. It displayed, yet again, the paralysis in Washington.
Although Obama's critics complain that foreign leaders no longer respect us, they can hardly respect a democracy that is so clearly dysfunctional. The episodes add up: The government shutdowns, the inability to pass a budget, now the letter, all giving the world a picture of a democracy that can no longer function. How can foreign leaders take our government seriously when the legislative majority regards the president with as much hostility as Iraqi Sunnis do Shiites.
Moreover, Cotton acted without the slightest regard for his gambit's impact on the credibility of future presidents. The letter claimed that presidential agreements (which make up 97 percent of our diplomatic accords) cannot be trusted because Congress can undo them. In fact, that very rarely happens, but the Republicans effectively told the world a president's word meant nothing — no matter which party he comes from.
Republican animosity toward Obama seems to have squelched common sense.
Yet, the 37-year-old Cotton, in office only two months, who dreamed up the letter and wrote it, has been hailed by the party's neoconservative wing as a future foreign-policy star.
"Tom Cotton is ahead of the mainstream of Republicans on foreign-policy thinking," said Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, who helped raise big bucks for Cotton. "Most of those running in 2016 will sound a lot more like Cotton than Rand Paul," he told the New York Times.
If that is true, the U.S. public had better pay close attention to the behavior of Cotton and his colleagues. America's security interests — and the answer to a weak Obama — will not be served by a return to the mistakes of the not-so-distant past.
Kristol was one of the prime movers for regime change in Iraq during the George W. Bush administration. (In the 1990s, I heard him insist that the United States should push for regime change in Beijing.) He predicted in his columns the Iraq war would "have terrifically good effects throughout the Middle East" and "start a chain reaction in the Arab world that would be very healthy."
In February 2003, he wrote, "If we free the people of Iraq, we will be respected in the Arab world ... and ... around the world."
The enthusiasm with which Cotton is pushing for an end to Iran talks — and this is the aim of his letter, not a better deal — should give pause. An end to talks, especially if the U.S. Congress is blamed, is likely to fray sanctions. That, in turn, will lead inevitably to pressure from Republican hawks (and Israel) for airstrikes against Tehran. Such airstrikes — as top Israeli security experts have warned — will probably accelerate Iran's push for a bomb and enmesh the United States in another Mideast conflict.
That may or may not be what Cotton and the Republican 47 are seeking. But that is where Lettergate is pointed.
Cotton's Senate campaign was heavily financed by U.S. supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu, including billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson. This big-bucks donor to Republican coffers famously suggested in October 2013 that Obama stop nuclear talks with Iran, fire a nuclear weapon into the Iranian desert, and then threaten to nuke Tehran if Iran didn't end its nuclear energy program. Adelson didn't appear to be joking.
If Cotton is about to become the Republican's foreign-policy point man, he needs to make clear whether he'd be as careless about dragging America into another Mideast war as he was about sending his letter.
The antidote to Obama's Mideast vacillation is not to march heedlessly into another unnecessary conflict that will not achieve the objectives claimed by its supporters.
Yet, financially and politically wedded to supporters of Netanyahu, the Republican 47 may be unwilling to listen to more reasoned Mideast experts, such as the former head of the Israeli Mossad (their CIA) Meir Dagan. Dagan said last week that war with Iran was "the last thing we need" and that there are other ways for Israel to thwart Iran for the time being.
In their war with Obama, the Republican 47 seem more concerned with defeating their enemy in the White House than with producing a bipartisan strategy to curb Iran — or crack ISIS. That's certainly the message Lettergate conveys. If that message is wrong, Cotton should clarify it, now.
Reach Trudy Rubin at email@example.com.