"Treason doth never prosper. What's the reason? Why if it prosper, none dare call it treason."
-- Sir John Harington
I led off with that quote for a couple of reasons. First, even though he misspelled his own name, Sir John was an interesting character. He was a courtesan during the reign of Elizabeth I, a talented and perceptive writer (as the epigram shows), and the inventor of a flush toilet (not "the" flush toilet, per se, as examples preceded him by centuries). Second, our junior Senator has managed to fling a large turd into the Washington punch bowl, for which Sir John's invention might be of some use.
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Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) grabbed the headlines yesterday with a letter, co-signed by 46 of his Republican senate colleagues, to the government of Iran. In the letter, he lectured Iran's government on the American constitutional system, noting that any agreement that might be signed by President Obama but not approved by the Congress could be revoked with the stroke of a pen by a future President.
Sen. Cotton no doubt imagines himself in that chair one day, and as much confidence as he has that he can get there, I am even more confident that he will be out of luck on that point.
(As a side note, I've been away from this blog for a considerable time due to work commitments, but I had to write on this subject.)
I offer a few comments on all of this.
First, I'm sure that Sen. Cotton is proud of his effort, but the letter itself strikes me as petulant and condescending. Perhaps Sen. Cotton imagines the Iranians as uneducated camel-humpers, but Iran is a place of civilization and culture. Many of the people in the Iranian government are well educated, almost technocratic, and certainly up to date not only on their own laws but also on ours. The Iranian Constitution was based on that of the French Fifth Republic, with notable influences from our own Constitution in the structure and organization of government. The Iranian government is overlaid with a clerical system that makes it an Islamic theocracy, but it is a functioning democracy that retains religious protections for non-Muslims--at least, those whose religions were established before Islam.
Second, this sort of effort is sadly typical of a certain party. Leaving aside the cottage industry that Sen. John McCain has made of personal diplomacy of a most erroneous sort (most recently, he suggested arming Syrian rebels who later turned out to be the founders of the purported "Islamic State," also known as ISIL or ISIS), Richard Nixon's private diplomacy likely torpedoed a peace agreement with North Vietnam in 1968, and there are persistent rumors that Ronald Reagan offered a deal to the Iranians in exchange for their refusal to release the hostages in 1980.
Notwithstanding the headline in the New York Daily News, this letter does not amount to treason. The crime of treason is defined in the Constitution: Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. This doesn't meet that definition.
But private diplomacy is against one of our oldest laws, the Logan Act, which provides:
Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply himself, or his agent, to any foreign government, or the agents thereof, for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.
(18 U.S.C. § 953.)
This letter, as it is intended, almost certainly violates that act, which is a felony punishable by three years in prison.
Which brings us to the point: Why send this letter at all?
Perhaps it was sent to grab attention, but more likely, the intent was to disrupt the sensitive negotiations among the U.S., Iran, the United Nations, and others, the goal of which is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The cynic in me wants to believe that Cotton's motivation is merely to deny the President a diplomatic triumph. If there is any operative political rule in this country, since January 20, 2009, that rule has been that if Obama is for something, the Republicans are against it.
But I'd really prefer to believe that they wouldn't be such children about something so important. The problem with that is this: They must then be genuinely stupid or malicious, and I'm not sure which is worse.
If their goal really is, as they say, to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranians, then the likeliest way to do that is to support these talks. The aim of these talks is to get Iran to give up their nuclear programme for a long period, which certainly aids the purported goal. Undermining the talks does the opposite of what they say they want.
But maybe their goal isn't to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran. We know that the GOP has had a boner for war with Iran for a long time. You only have to listen to this YouTube clip to know that. The truth is that a diplomatic solution in Iran will make war far less likely, thereby undermining the GOP's goal of lining defense contractors' pockets to run the perpetual war machine.
On second thought, that's not (just) malicious. It's depraved.
I have no confidence that Cotton will see any legal consequences from this. And maybe the Logan Act is a very old law that doesn't serve a modern purpose. But there should be political consequences for this depraved act. If the media can tear themselves away from the Hillary Clinton email issue for a few moments, maybe there will be.