In less than a week, Congressional Republicans have taken two unprecedented steps to undermine the foreign policy of a sitting American president. Last Tuesday, they offered Capitol Hill as a global stage to a foreign leader--Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel--to sabotage the U.S.-led nuclear talks with Iran. And this weekend, 47 GOP Senators sent a letter to the leadership in Tehran warning the Islamic Republic that Congress-or the next president-could blow up any nuclear deal at any time.
But one Republican leader--Dick Cheney--furiously condemned Congressional interference with the President's policy towards Iran. Condemned it, that is, provided the President was Ronald Reagan and the issue wasn't limiting Iran's arsenal, but enhancing it.
That's right. In the wake of the arms-for-hostages scandal that engulfed President Reagan in 1986, the minority Republican response to the Congressional Iran-Contra investigation declared that Congress, not the White House, had done something wrong.
Joined then by Utah Senator Orrin Hatch (who also signed this week's letter) among other GOP leaders, Cheney didn't just denounce the majority's findings as "clearly cast in such a partisan tone," but insisted President Reagan had the constitutional authority to ignore the Congressional ban on aid to the Nicaraguan Contras:
"Judgments about the Iran-Contra Affair ultimately must rest upon one's views about the proper roles of Congress and the President in foreign policy. ... [T]hroughout the Nation's history, Congress has accepted substantial exercises of Presidential power -- in the conduct of diplomacy, the use of force and covert action -- which had no basis in statute and only a general basis in the Constitution itself. ... [M]uch of what President Reagan did in his actions toward Nicaragua and Iran were constitutionally protected exercises of inherent Presidential powers. ... [T]he power of the purse ... is not and was never intended to be a license for Congress to usurp Presidential powers and functions."
The Iran-Contra scandal, as you'll recall, almost laid waste to the Reagan presidency. Desperate to free U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, President Reagan provided weapons Tehran badly needed in its long war with Saddam Hussein (who, of course, was backed by the United States). In a clumsy and illegal attempt to skirt U.S. law, the proceeds of those sales were then funneled to the contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And as the New York Times recalled, Reagan's fiasco started with an emissary bearing gifts from the Gipper himself:
A retired Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that on the secret mission to Teheran last May, Robert C. McFarlane and his party carried a Bible with a handwritten verse from President Reagan for Iranian leaders.
According to a person who has read the committee's draft report, the retired C.I.A. official, George W. Cave, an Iran expert who was part of the mission, said the group had 10 falsified passports, believed to be Irish, and a key-shaped cake to symbolize the anticipated ''opening'' to Iran.
But in his November 18, 1987 press conference unveiling the minority report, Cheney rejected any notion of wrong-doing by the Reagan administration. "The bottom line, however, is that the mistakes...were just that," Rep. Cheney announced to the nation, "mistakes in judgment, and nothing more."
There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for ''the rule of law,'' no grand conspiracy, and no Administration-wide dishonesty or coverup. In fact, the evidence will not support any of the more hysterical conclusions the committees' report tries to reach.
In 1989, the future Defense Secretary and Vice President made it clear that his objection to Capitol Hill butting into the President's constitutional powers to conduct diplomacy applied to every issue and every occupant of the Oval Office. As he put it in an address to the American Enterprise Institute:
[C]ongressional overreaching has systematic policy effects. It is important to be clear at the outset that my argument is about systematic effects, not individual policy disagreements. For example, Congress' efforts to dictate diplomatic bargaining tactics, as well as the efforts by individual members to conduct back channel negotiations on their own, make it extremely difficult for the country to sustain a consistent bargaining posture for an extended time period, whomever the President and whatever the policy. [Emphasis original.]
Fast-forwarding to 2015, it's no wonder Democratic leaders are outraged by what White House Press Secretary John Earnest decried as "the continuation of a partisan strategy to undermine the president's authority." And if was an honest man, Dick Cheney would be outraged, too.