Where Are the Anti-War Democrats on Iran?

Liberal doves need to find candidates who can bring Congress's foreign policy into line with the desires of the American people.

John Kerry speaks to the press following the Iranian nuclear talks in Lausanne (Reuters)

Many in Congress want the chance to kill the Iran deal. President Obama doesn’t want to give them that opportunity. I’m torn.

Like many liberals, I think America is generally better off when Congress has more oversight over foreign policy. It’s no coincidence that the greatest foreign policy disaster of the twentieth century, Vietnam, occurred near the height of what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “The Imperial Presidency.” And the greatest foreign policy disaster of the twenty-first century occurred when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney created another imperial presidency after 9/11. Seeking unaccountable presidential power is a bipartisan affliction, and so even progressives who sympathize with Barack Obama’s foreign policy should be worried by his efforts to deny Congress a voice over something as big as a nuclear deal with Iran.

On the other hand, although the legislative branch’s constitutional prerogatives don’t depend on whether Congress reflects public opinion, it’s worth noting on that on Iran, it most certainly does not. Since last Thursday’s framework agreement, polls from both The Washington Post/ABC News and Reuters/Ipsos have shown that a small plurality of Republican voters actually support the Iran deal. Yet it’s likely that every single Republican senator will oppose it. Democrats, the polls show, back the agreement by margins of three or five to one. Yet key Senate Democrats are skeptical of the deal, and few have endorsed it enthusiastically.

What’s the reason for this gulf between popular and congressional opinion? In part, it’s because hawks are more mobilized. An ultra-hard line against Iran has been near the top of the agenda of AIPAC—and pro-Israel political action committees—for two decades now. AIPAC supporters distribute their money to both parties.* But in recent years they have been joined by GOP billionaires, like Sheldon Adelson, who have been liberated by the Supreme Court to spend vast sums for the purposes of shifting the Israel and Iran debates further right. Tom Cotton alone got more than $2 million from these Iran hawks in his 2014 Senate run.

Doves often decry this, but the bigger question is: Why can’t they compete? MoveOn.org and a variety of other progressive groups recently sent a letter warning Democratic senators not to kill the Iran deal. And in the absence of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Iran has moved near the top of J Street’s agenda. Still, the discrepancy between the political pressure being exerted by hawks and doves is stunning. A GOP senator who supported the Iran deal would become a virtual pariah in his party and quite likely face a primary challenge—despite the fact that a plurality of rank-and-file Republicans support the deal. In the Democratic Party, by contrast, where public support for last Thursday’s agreement is overwhelming, Charles Schumer can vocally endorse the Corker-Menendez bill, which might well scuttle the Iran deal, without at all imperiling his rise to Senate Majority Leader.

More than a decade after the invasion of Iraq, despite the disasters that American military intervention has brought, there is still a culture of impunity for Democratic politicians who defy their party’s voters on questions of war and peace. Of the 29 Democratic senators who voted for the Iraq War, only one, Joe Lieberman, faced a serious primary challenge. Yes, Hillary Clinton’s Iraq vote helped doom her presidential chances in 2008. But after questioning her foreign policy judgment during the campaign, Barack Obama named her secretary of state, where she joined Vice President Joe Biden, who had also backed the war, and was succeeded by John Kerry, who had too. Since her time as Secretary of State, Clinton has left little doubt that she remains more hawkish than both Obama and most Democratic voters. Yet it looks unlikely an anti-war candidate will challenge her in the 2016 primaries.

There are several reasons for all this. It’s partly because when it comes to foreign policy, conservative donors are more single-minded than liberal ones. Every Republican politician knows that Adelson conditions his checks on their Iran vote. Even dovish Democratic donors, by contrast, generally care about issues like abortion, gay marriage, gun control and climate change, which makes them more willing to donate to Schumer or Clinton despite their differences on Iran.

It’s also notoriously hard to mobilize Americans against wars until those wars begin. The anti-Vietnam movement didn’t become a force inside the national Democratic Party until 1968, when more than 20,000 Americans had already died. And liberal activists only began putting real pressure on Democratic politicians over Iraq after the war began, when they powered Howard Dean’s insurgent campaign. Since World War II, the general pattern has been that elites drive foreign policy—generally in an interventionist direction—until they make a mess big enough to make the public cry stop.

But these are explanations, not excuses. Liberal activists should go office to office in the senate, as Allard Lowenstein did when searching for a challenger to Lyndon Johnson in 1968, looking for someone to run against Schumer for majority leader unless he comes out clearly in support of the Iran deal. And they should start recruiting primary challengers against anti-Iran-deal Democrats who are up for reelection in 2016. These challengers don’t have to win. They just have to ensure that Democratic Senators who now worry mostly about alienating AIPAC begin worrying about alienating Democratic voters too.

I understand the urge to scuttle a congressional vote on Iran, but the far better path would be to pressure members of Congress to begin representing their constituents. Yes, Congress deserves a voice over the Iran deal. But the American people do, too.

* This article originally stated that AIPAC, and its associated political action committee, distribute money to both parties. AIPAC is not formally associated with any political action committees, and does not distribute funds to candidates or political parties. We regret the error.