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With two nuclear options, Obama can push back against friends, foes alike

Commentary: New filibuster rules strengthen the president’s capacity to govern effectively, while a deal with Iran could lead to the most fundamental change in US foreign policy in decades.
Obama phone callEnlarge
President Barack Obama speaks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran on the phone in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Pete Souza/White House/Getty Images)

OWL’S HEAD, Maine — President Barack Obama took on two nuclear battles last week and emerged victorious in both.

The first was his very active, behind-the-scenes support for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to ignite the so-called "nuclear option," by which the Democratic majority in the Senate unilaterally changed the rules on filibustering. The action means that presidential appointments can be approved by the Senate with a mere majority vote, thus overturning the tradition of enabling the minority party to filibuster the president's picks.

Maine's moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins sided with the rest of the Republicans (and three Democrats) in voting against the rule change, terming Reid's move "a terrible mistake. This is contrary to not only the long-standing rules of the Senate but our traditions of respecting minority party rights. We're not the House of Representatives. We're the Senate."

The "we're not the House of Representatives" was the preferred response of Republican senators to the filibuster rule change, a reference to the more partisan behavior of the junior house.

But since Obama became president, Republicans in the Senate have made it as partisan as the House ever was. Their not-so-hidden purpose is to weaken the president's ability to govern, regardless of the effect on the country as a whole. Half of the 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations in the nation's history have occurred during Obama's presidency.

Despite this record, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander was outraged at what he called "a tyranny of the majority." A Washington Post editorial agreed, terming it a "radical tactic, a product of poisonous partisanship, which will also be an accelerant of poisonous partisanship."

No doubt true — but at some point, the tyranny of the minority had to be challenged. The New York Times had a positive view, its editorial headline proclaiming "Democracy Returns to the Senate."

And then, just two days later, a different nuclear option, negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry, was reached with Iran. The Iranians agreed to freeze their ongoing nuclear program for six months, to permit negotiations toward a comprehensive arrangement that would scale back Iran's program and require it to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.

To assure compliance, the interim deal involves enhanced UN inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities. In exchange, approximately $7 billion worth of sanctions will be lifted. This is a piddling percentage of the upwards of $100 billion in sanctions Iran is currently facing.

The Saudis had been dead-set against this preliminary deal, not for substantive reasons, but rather for their concern that a long-term nuclear compact between Iran and the West would return Shia Iran to the international scene as a respectable participant. They worry that it could be the prelude to a more pragmatic, and ultimately more liberal, Iranian government that would gradually reduce Sunni Saudi Arabia's influence in the region as well as in the West.

Interestingly, in the few days since the deal has been reached, the Saudis have backtracked somewhat, issuing a statement that "if there is good will," the nuclear agreement could prove to be a positive step.

Not so Israel’s Netanyahu, who remains aggressively opposed, though it's hard to pinpoint the strategic reason behind his view of the deal as a "historic mistake." While such a long-term strategic re-alignment is definitely a risk to Saudi standing in the region and beyond, Israel's unique position in the Middle East will hardly be threatened by a more moderate Iran.

Instead, Netanyahu wants the US and its allies to increase sanctions in order to force Iran to give up its entire nuclear program, not just the military aspect. This is a totally unrealistic demand.

Were the recently elected government of President Hassan Rouhani to agree, it would only play into the hands of Iran's hardliners who are opposed to any compromise at all. The moderate Rouhani would be forced out and replaced by an updated — and no doubt more radical — version of his predecessor, the anti-Israel, anti-West Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For whatever reason, the hyperventilating Netanyahu seems to prefer a war with Iran to the possibility of a reasonable compromise. Perhaps he's worried that removing Iran from the anti-Israel team would put additional pressure on Israel to reach a fair settlement with the Palestinians.

Without the 6-month deal, Iran would continue its uranium enrichment, leaving the West with only a military option, which could lead to a multitude of catastrophic results in the explosive region.

Showing that moderate Republicans are still further to the right than even the most conservative Democrats — or just as riled up about an Obama success story as their far right colleagues — Senator Collins released a statement noting that she has "many concerns about whether or not this plan is in America's best interests."

Nor is she alone; it's a sentiment pushed by the vast majority of Republican congressmen. Some Democratic senators, notably New York's Charles Schumer, are also opposed. This is largely a reflection of the strength of AIPAC, Israel's powerful lobby in Washington, which is in lock step with Netanyahu in opposition to the deal.

By contrast, the upstart organization J-Street, a "pro-Israel and pro-peace" lobby that represents the views of mainstream American Jews, welcomed the deal with Iran: "It marked an important first step in ensuring that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon. It shows the potential for achieving meaningful curbs on Iran's program without resorting to military force."

The American public, as was made abundantly clear when it looked as if Obama was going to bomb Syria, has no stomach for further adventurism in the Middle East. Blanket Republican opposition to the first step in a possible resolution of the most dangerous issue facing the world's most dangerous region is clearly a political slap at Obama rather than a serious consideration of the strategic interests of the US.

Obama's popularity and support are at an all-time low, but the Tea Party and its supporters, including a large element of Republican congressmen who are afraid of its power, are driving the Republican Party ever further to the right. Among almost every voting category — Latinos, blacks, women, urbanites, younger Americans — the Republican Party is losing. Increasingly, its majority support is limited to aging, white, rural males, a dying breed.

Obama is right to support his Democratic allies in the Senate in trying to limit Republican obstructionism. And he's right to give his secretary of state support in laying the groundwork for what could develop into one of the most fundamental changes in American foreign policy in decades.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives in Owl's Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.

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