When Politics Goes Too Far

by John Lawrence

The welcome release by Iran of Jason Rezaian and several other undeservedly imprisoned individuals offers a stark illustration of how uninformed and yet dangerous the fulminations of hyperventilating politicians can be. It’s no surprise that securing Rezaian’s release won President Obama and his negotiators no accolades from those who have condemned the President for supposedly tolerating his imprisonment, but the nature of the hostile comments bears reviewing.

Members of Congress often pontificate on issues they either willfully distort or on which they are hopelessly ignorant; in the case of the Rezaian capture and release, they got to check both boxes. In addition, the Republican presidential candidates who previously demanded some unspecified action to free the reporter, rather than celebrating his release, have turned this into a moment to shower blame on President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. Donald Trump, who has never negotiated anything more complex than a building lease, dismissed the negotiated outcome as a complete capitulation to Iran since “they get $250 billion [in the nuclear agreement] plus seven [prisoners] and we get four,” overlooking any other benefits to the world from the successful nuclear weapons agreement. “I will tell you it’s a disgrace they’ve been there so long,” Trump raged. No clue on how the Berlusconi of builders might have freed Rezaian and the others, let alone earlier.

The Republicans’ reflexive hatred for Obama was similarly evident in Ted Cruz’ grammatically challenged admonition, “Praise God! Surely bad parts of Obama’s latest deal, but prayers of thanksgiving.” What’s that phrase about “bad parts of Obama’s latest deal?” Cruz evidently also believes the ratio of prisoners was unfair. And of course, Chris Christie declared, as a fellow New Jerseyan should, “We shouldn’t have to swap prisoners; they should have been released without condition.” Yeah! Right! Why didn’t the President think of that?

None of these puffed up blowhards offered any suggestion as to exactly how Rezaian or the others, or the 11 American sailors captured (and quickly released) in Iranian waters last week could have been freed more expeditiously. A fair analysis must conclude that patient negotiations, combined with the good will established in the discussions over the nuclear pact, played a very significant role in securing these releases. On one point we can be incontrovertibly certain: attempting to use bluster or worse, military intervention, perhaps to make Iran “glow” in Cruz’ immortal words, would have produced a lot of dead Americans. One of the great benefits of being a candidate for President, rather than actually being President, is that you get to say ridiculously dumb things to agitate your partisans; OK, fair enough, they all do it, and not just in the United States. But when a candidate makes hyperbolic statements that could jeopardize delicate discussions and force a bad response that might be otherwise avoidable, he or she crosses the line into highly irresponsible and dangerous behavior. The Republicans blew through that line, and one must only conclude they were prepared to risk the lives of the hostages to score a very fleeting political advantage.

The would-be presidents were not to be outdone by Members of Congress like Lee Zeldin, Peter Roskam and Mike Pompeo who sounded like Sopranos-enforcer Furio Giunta, threatening to kick some Iranian butt if they did not immediately release the American sailors. For good measure, the House voted to impose new sanctions on Iran last Wednesday, (although the vote was later vacated because too many Members neglected to vote, suggesting it might not have been quite as high a priority as proclaimed), but not before huffing and puffing about how outraged they were at the Iranian kidnappers and their spineless co-conspirator in the White House.

No one knows how much these congressional malcontents really knew about what was going on to resolve the kidnapping and imprisonment situations. I suppose it is possible that they received detailed, highly classified briefings about the circumstances surrounding the sailors’ wandering into Iranian waters, but they aren’t saying. (Only Pompeo, a Tea Party activist, is on the Intelligence Committee.) One of the dilemmas of congressional intelligence briefings is that once briefed, you cannot discuss what you just learned. With anyone. Which is why some Members choose not to be briefed: so there is no question that they accidentally disclosed highly classified information.

One can only hope these congressional whiners were not briefed; if they were, and had been told of the delicate nature of the negotiations and the possibility of the swift release of the sailors, it would have been absurdly irresponsible for them to castigate the Iranians. If they did not know the status of the discussions, then why were they shooting off their mouths, potentially jeopardizing delicate conversations and endangering those who were in captivity?

This latest brouhaha is a good example of how self-centered bloviating has superseded legislating in the Boehner-Ryan Congresses of the past few years. Lots of noise about ending deficits, and then the GOP leadership proposes hundreds of billions of dollars in unpaid-for appropriations and tax spending. Interminable chatter about TARP giveaways to Wall Street (which were repaid, with interest), while voting for hundreds of billions of dollars in unpaid tax breaks for corporations without blinking an eye. Four dozen votes over 5 years to repeal all or a portion of the health care law, promising to “replace” it with some still-to-be-drafted substitute. It’s one thing to pontificate on something like the ACA when everyone knows you don’t have a clue what else to do; but shooting from the lip when lives of captured Americans are at stake is beyond defensible.

Perhaps the misguided allegations were warranted because they helped keep Americans attuned to the scheming Iranians who were probably using the sailor subterfuge to conceal their failure to comply with the nuclear agreement they negotiated with our dupe of a president. Oh, they did comply? Well, never mind.