How America's debate over Iran nuclear deal was shaped by Vietnam

For several decades after World War II, American foreign policy was remarkably bipartisan. But since Vietnam, Congress has been more skeptical of presidents' agendas overseas, and that is playing out in new ways with the Iran deal.

Mel Evans/AP/File
Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat, walks off stage after announcing his opposition to the Obama-backed Iran nuclear deal at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., last month.

Congress returns this week to take up the Iran nuclear deal, and no question, it’s a sharply partisan debate. It raises the question: Whatever happened to the “good old days” when partisanship stopped at the water’s edge, as the adage goes?

Historians say that the rancor characterizing this debate is actually not so uncharacteristic. Nor is the division strictly along party lines: Some Democrats, particularly Jews, are deeply conflicted about the negotiated agreement that lifts sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.

“The saying about politics stops at the water's edge was really a Cold War invention that lasted from 1945 to the Vietnam War,” writes former Senate historian Don Ritchie in an e-mail.  

It sprang from a country strongly behind America’s projection of power in World War II, but fell apart over the “high-handedness” of the Johnson and Nixon administrations during the Vietnam era, Mr. Ritchie explains.

Historians point to treaties before and after this time period that produced severe clashes between the president and Congress.

For instance, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson strongly backed the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended combat against Germany in World War I and established the League of Nations, the international organization meant to preserve the peace. It was a treaty he had negotiated personally.  But it went down to defeat in the Republican-led Senate.

Conservatives intensely opposed President Jimmy Carter’s Panama Canal treaties, which handed control of the canal back to Panama. He managed to persuade a group of Republicans to ratify them in 1978 – but, as with Versailles, the party makeup in Congress was different then, with liberals and conservative wings in both parties.

The one-term Carter “paid a heavy political price” for the passage of the treaties, wrote Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, in a political analysis of the Iran deal for CNN.

“Conservatives such as Ronald Reagan used the treaties to paint Democrats as weak on defense and to rally their base.”

The Iran deal is not a treaty, but an executive agreement negotiated with Iran by the administration and five other world powers. But that doesn’t diminish its potential as a political bonfire.

Future presidents could rip up the agreement, as some Republican presidential candidates have pledged they’ll do. “This means that the partisan incentives to attack will remain strong,” Mr. Zelizer wrote.

On Wednesday, for instance, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and Donald Trump – both seeking the GOP presidential nomination – will headline the “Stop the Iran Deal” rally at the Capitol. Conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck will join them. The White House is calling it the “pro-war rally” – just the kind of label that has irked opponents of the deal.

Those opponents include some Democrats. 

The most senior Jewish Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York, thinks the deal as too risky, as does Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who is also Jewish. Senator Schumer is the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate leadership; Senator Cardin is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“This should be a vote of conscience, not a litmus test of party loyalty or political acumen,” Cardin wrote in a Sept. 4 Washington Post opinion article explaining why he does not back the deal.

But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that after a “gut- wrenching, thought-provoking process,” she will back the deal.

“There's nothing more important to me, as a Jew, to ensure that Israel's existence is there throughout our generations. And I'm confident that the process I have gone through to reach this decision is one that will ensure that Israel will be there forever,” she said.

The division within the Jewish community over this issue reaches down to the grass-roots level.

A town hall at the Jewish Community Center in Wilmington, Del., last month reflected sharply diverging views. “I’ve never seen such division,” Sonia Sloan, a longtime Democratic activist who attended the meeting.

Ms. Sloan is Jewish and supports the deal. She recalled one opponent who shook his finger in her face and then shook his fist, while a longtime friend told her, “I know where we stand, and we don’t agree, but I still love you.” 

It's not so touchy-feely in Congress, but some lawmakers on both sides are now looking ahead to after the president wins this one – he has the votes to support him if he needs to veto a potential resolution of disapproval from the GOP-led Congress.

It remains to be seen whether both sides will come together on post-deal legislation that would strengthen military support for Israel, help US allies in the region, and tighten enforcement against Iran. The potential for progress and for more partisanship is apparent in a statement by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky last week.

After the White House cinched its 34th Senate vote to beat back opposition to the deal, Senator McConnell said:

“While the president may be able to sustain a veto with the tepid, restricted and partisan support of one third of one House of Congress … it will require a bipartisan Congress to strengthen our defenses in the Persian Gulf and to stand up to the inevitable Iranian violations of the agreement.”

But, he added, “because this is not a treaty, it can and should be revisited by our new president.”

It was clear he meant the next Republican president.

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