Why it’s so much easier for Congress to vote for war than peace

Council for a Livable World board member co-authored the following article for Reuters on September 3, 2015.

Photo: REUTERS/Jim Bourg

By Laicie Heeley and Dan Wirls

———————————————————————

Though a majority in the Senate may vote against the Iran nuclear agreement, the deal is now expected to survive. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama gained enough support in the Senate to sustain a presidential veto.

But that’s not the same as getting a majority in Congress to sign on to support the deal. In fact, unless the situation changes dramatically, a majority in Congress will vote against diplomacy.

Many critics of the deal continue to talk about the need for military action — no matter the potential price in blood and treasure. Meanwhile they disparage diplomacy, no matter how low the risk and costly the alternatives.Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 23, 2015.

Some did not even bother pretending to consider both sides before excoriating the deal or announcing their opposition. Many, including Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a key voice in the party leadership, seem to have decided that “no” is the safest vote — not for the United States (or Israel), but for their electoral security.

In fact, it is often politically safer for members to vote for war and against diplomacy. That reality is nothing new.

Compare the likely outcome of the Senate vote on the Iran deal with the actual vote on the 2002 Iraq war authorization. The Iraq vote garnered large majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate. In fact the final tally in the Senate was 77-23.

Many members of Congress were anxious about the political consequences of being perceived as “weak” if they didn’t support military action in Iraq. The same dynamic appears to be in play today. In addition, few were held to account later for the Iraq decision, though it cost thousands of American lives and more than an estimated $2 trillion.

Members of Congress today are still considering how to vote on the Iran nuclear deal. Some senators may now even be more encouraged to vote against the agreement, knowing it will survive. In other words, support for diplomacy is again perceived as the riskier vote for Congress members. Why is this?

One reason is that war tends to fail objectively long before it fails politically. Politically, less-than-satisfactory results often become the justification for even more war. The lives lost and the costs expended become a rationale to stay the course — as in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

By contrast, the often ambiguous or uncertain results of diplomacy can become justifications for belligerence or war, even before an agreement has been tested in practice: We tried diplomacy and didn’t get 100 percent of what we wanted — so now it’s time for military action.

Rejecting diplomacy also often tracks with the interests of members’ constituencies — which can be counter to national public opinion trends? Consider, though Americans polled overall tend to favor war with Iran only after all other options have been exhausted, public opinion differs by state and district.

This is one key reason why Congress is not given the responsibility of negotiating foreign policy. Members, such as Schumer, must speak for their own slice of the country. It is the president’s job, however, to negotiate on behalf of the country as a whole.

Members of Congress, meanwhile, can continue to argue for a better agreement with Iran with few political repercussions. Even though most experts and world powers that negotiated this deal agree that the likelihood of such an outcome is a fantasy.

The same short-term political logic that pushed many members of Congress, such as Schumer, to endorse war in Iraq in 2003 motivates them now to oppose the Iran agreement. Some members are holding diplomacy to a far higher standard, despite the stark evidence of recent history when diplomacy was cast aside.

If Congress instead strengthened the president’s hand by enforcing the agreement, a congressional endorsement would send a strong signal to Iran that, should this deal fail, there is only one option left.

Nothing in the Iran agreement limits the ability of the U.S. military to do its job. Ten to 15 years from now, Washington’s options for military action will not have changed.

Members of Congress should feel secure that a vote for the agreement reflects strength, not weakness. Voters, meanwhile, should be prepared to assign a cost to those who choose political expedience — and in the process make war more likely.