Dr. Leslie Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He penned an op-ed blasting the GOP senators who signed on to the letter to the leaders of Iran authored by Senator Tom Cotton’s, calling the letter an act “of near-treachery.” Here’s the text of the letter. Here’s the Gelb interview:
HH: I begin the program, though, with Dr. Leslie Gelb. Dr. Gelb, former correspondent of the New York Times. He is current president emeritus and board senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations .He is a columnist over at the Daily Beast, and yesterday, he wrote a blast at Tom Cotton and the 46 other Republicans who wrote the letter to Iran, the title of the column by Dr. Gelb is “GOP Hates Obama More Than A Nuclear Iran.” Dr. Gelb, welcome, it’s good to have you on the program.
LG: Good to be here.
HH: First thing, this is a hard-hitting column, so I want to go to the very substance of it. You call the four paragraph letter from the Republican Senators an “unintelligible rant.” I read it all on the air yesterday. Do you really think it’s an “unintelligible rant?”
LG: Absolutely. Absolutely, because first of all, it doesn’t make clear in any sense what’s wrong with the agreement being negotiated, and just as important, and even perhaps more important, it doesn’t give any reasonable alternative. All it says is hey, you mullahs over there, you guys that we think are intolerable, don’t think for a minute we’re going to put up with any deal you make with the president of the United States. That’s what it says.
HH: Well, I’m reading here, “what these two Constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen. And future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.” That’s intelligible to me. Are they wrong about that?
LG: Are they technically correct? Yes, they are. But what they’re saying is, and you know, this, they’re saying you don’t have to pay any attention to the president of the United States, because whatever he does with you, we’re going to undo it, or the next president is going to undo it. And that is really extraordinary to undermine a sitting president that way.
HH: Now that brings me to the second part. I’ll come back to whether or not it’s unintelligible. I think it’s very intelligible, but intelligible is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. But you make an argument that it’s unprecedented. Do you really believe that, Leslie Gelb, that this is unprecedented?
LG: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s different…
HH: On the spectrum…
LG: It’s different from Nancy Pelosi going over and schmoozing with Assad and saying hey, I’d like to figure out some way to work with you. That’s not proclaiming that whatever the President does with you, the president of the United States, who’s in charge of United States foreign policy, whatever he does with you, disregard it, because we’re going to throw it out the window. That is, for 47 Senators to write foreign leaders to say that? Sure, it’s unprecedented.
HH: Let me give you some examples from history with which I know you’re familiar, given your long and distinguished career, and distinguish them for me. In March of 1983, first the House and then the Senate passed over the vociferous objections of President Reagan nuclear freeze resolutions when President Reagan argued that those resolutions would greatly undermine his negotiating approach to the old Soviet Union. How is yesterday’s letter different or worse than those resolutions from 1983?
LG: It was addressed to foreign leaders, and that one was a statement. It happens all the time, of Congress expressing its opinion. It had no binding effect whatsoever.
HH: Well, the letter yesterday didn’t have any binding effect, either.
LG: It was addressed to foreign leaders.
HH: But are you saying that…
LG: …people we’re negotiating with.
HH: Mr. Brezhnev or Mr. Andropov or Mr. Gorbachev later, whoever would read resolutions don’t take account of what’s going on? Because I really think the freeze resolutions were much more destructive of the President’s negotiating position than yesterday’s, which may have in fact helped him.
LG: He went on to negotiate a kind of an arms control agreement he wanted.
HH: Yeah, but that was, what is the difference in kind between what the Democrats did in ’83 and what the Republicans did yesterday?
LG: They’re making a statement of their views here within the United States to the American people. They’re saying here’s what we think should be. This was addressed to foreign leaders, and that’s a huge difference in saying to them the president of the United States doesn’t matter. See, when they say it that way, and that’s really what it was about, they’re announcing to the world don’t pay any attention to the guy who you may call president of the United States, because he hasn’t really got any power that matters.
HH: Well, I actually have read the letter closely.
LG: And that really is different.
HH: The second thing they write, for example, “the President may serve only two four year terms, whereas Senators may serve an unlimited number of six year terms. As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January, 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then, perhaps decades.” They are addressing them as long-time participants in foreign policy about whom Tehran ought to be concerned. And isn’t Tehran right to know that?
LG: No, look, it really is different for them to, for Congress to express its opinion, which it does all the time in these non-binding resolutions to the American people, to the President, which is to say here’s what we think you should do. This went way beyond that by saying don’t pay attention to the president of the United States. You surely can see the difference.
HH: Here’s a second example. In 1984, the Democrats in Congress passed, over the objection of President Reagan, the Boland Amendment, which cut off funding for the Nicaragua Contras. That did more than communicate a potential disagreement with American foreign policy. It fractured American foreign policy. Why is what a letter to Iranian officials that makes perfectly understated comments about Constitutional authority worse for foreign affairs authority of the President than actually taking away from him his foreign affairs power as the Democrats did in 1984?
LG: Well, they did, and they did it legally. And they said that in the opinion of a great majority, a majority that could not be overcome by a veto, that they didn’t think the United States should be involved in that civil war.
HH: So they intervened actually far more effectively in the conduct of American foreign policy?
LG: Yeah, they did.
HH: They did.
LG: And if these people want to reject an agreement made by the President, I would find that more in keeping with practice than for them to try to destroy the President’s ability to conduct diplomacy, because they’re telling the whole world don’t pay attention to this guy. When the Boland Amendment was struck, it was saying hey, we disagree with the Nicaragua policy. We disagree with supporting the Contras. That’s very specific, and it doesn’t say hey, forget about Ronald Reagan.
HH: In 2007, then-majority leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, had this to say after President Bush had launched the surge.
HR: “I believe, myself, that the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and you have to make your own decision as to what the President knows, that this war is lost.”
HH: When the majority leader says this war is lost, did not our enemies take that into account in how they planned their endgame in Iraq, Dr. Gelb?
LG: Yes, sir. Yes, they did. But I’m not saying that people in Congress can’t pass resolutions, pass laws, make speeches. Here’s my position on things. But this letter was a smack in the face of a president, and thus, in the face of the United States’ ability to protect American security around the world. You’re undermining the guy we depend on to keep us safe.
HH: Was Harry Reid undermining President Bush when he said this was is lost?
LG: I think he was expressing an opinion shared by a lot of people, and yes, it did hurt Bush. But it didn’t say to the world you can’t pay any attention to this guy, because he’s worthless and he has got no support back here in the United States. He was saying in my opinion, the war is lost. There’s a big difference between saying that and saying don’t pay attention to the president of the United States. It’s a big deal.
HH: Now let me come back to that.
LG: You know, if this happened with a Republican president, I would have written the same article. I would have written exactly the same article.
HH: Did you, that’s what I want to come back to right now. Did you write such an article when Harry Reid made that statement in 2007?
LG: Well, no, in fact, I didn’t pay much attention to it, for the reasons I said.
HH: All right, now in, do you believe that in 1994, when the Clinton administration struck the nuclear agreement with North Korea, it was a good agreement at the time?
LG: I thought it was worth trying, as I think this agreement under negotiation with Iran is worth trying, to see if they’ll keep to the terms, and if we can go further, that the agreement in and of itself didn’t put us in a more difficult position. It improved the situation somewhat, because they were going to shut down their plant that was producing plutonium. And that gave us a chance to go further, and we’d see. You know, I don’t trust the Iranian mullahs. I don’t. And I don’t trust the people who ran North Korea. But history is replete, diplomacy is replete, Republicans presidents have shown that they know how to deal with adversaries and enemies, and that’s how you do it. You make agreements that don’t hurt you and could help you.
HH: But the 1994 agreement turned out not to have worked, correct?
LG: That’s correct. It didn’t.
HH: And so if Republican Senators in 1994 had urged North Korea not to enter in that agreement, and they had been successful in preventing North Korea from entering into that agreement, wouldn’t we be better off?
LG: No, I think it was worth trying, and we saw that they cheated, and it didn’t work, so we said the hell with it.
HH: Do you believe that the Iranians provided IED’s to the insurgency in Iraq, and perhaps in Afghanistan, that killed Americans?
LG: Yeah, I do believe they did that.
HH: Do you believe that Iran has been the state sponsor of terrorism around the globe?
LG: I do.
HH: You believe they’re propping up Hezbollah and Assad?
HH: Do you think they’re the most dangerous state in the world right now?
LG: No. I think the country that has done us the most harm is Saudi Arabia, because Saudi Arabia has financed and armed these crazy jihadis who we’re so worried about right now, whom everybody is worried about now, including the Iranians. And they created these madrassas all over the world, which preach hatred of the United States. They’re the ones who have done us the most harm.
HH: So you believe Saudi Arabia is more dangerous to American interests than Iran?
LG: I think that unless they stop doing what I just describe, yes, they’ve done us more harm.
HH: Okay, well, that’s controversial. Now I come back to Churchill and Munich. When Neville Chamberlain came back from Munich with the agreement in ’38, Churchill said you were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war. I think these Republican Senators are acting in 2015 as Churchill acted in ’38. Would you have called Churchill a hater?
LG: No, I thought Churchill did absolutely the right thing. and he understood that Hitler went way beyond the pale, and you could not do business with him. Now you could have said almost the same thing about Stalin at the time, but once Hitler went after Stalin, too, it opened up the door for us to cooperate with the Soviet Union. We knew Stalin was a bastard. He was an evil guy. But he wasn’t as bad as Hitler. He was very bad, but the main thing to go after, the main problem, was Hitler. And so we cooperated with Stalin. And we’ve done that throughout American history.
HH: Now what you said about the Senators this week, though, is that they acted, they committed an act of “near treachery.”
LG: Yes, by undermining the power of the president of the United States, the credibility of the United States, our ability to conduct U.S. policy to protect U.S. interests.
HH: So to state their constitutional, and they stated it clearly, their constitutional role, and to do so politely, in four paragraphs, in the aftermath of the 1994 failed agreement, against an enemy of the American people who have killed American troops, is an act of “near treachery?”
LG: What’s the question?
HH: I’m asking you to affirm, against that backdrop of all those statements, we went through the history of Congressional interventions in foreign policy, large and small…
HH: We went through the history of Iran in killing Americans and international sponsor of state terror, not to be trusted. We went through the fact that in many other instances, people have criticized presidential actions and have not been called treacherous. That is what caught my eye, Dr. Gelb. “Near treachery” is a slander on their patriotism. And many people were rightly upset with Rudy Giuliani, or wrongly upset with Rudy Giuliani when he cautiously questioned the President’s love of country. Aren’t you doing the same thing about these Republicans?
LG: He didn’t cautiously question the President’s love of country. He was pretty uncautious about it. And what I said, I stand by, namely that these guys went way beyond the pale in telling foreign leaders forget about the president of the United States. He is, like it or not, and as you probably know, I have criticized President Obama regularly myself, and rather harshly, for a number of things.
HH: But bear with me, then…
LG: But I don’t say hey, don’t bother dealing with this guy, because he’s my president. He’s your president. And he’s going to be president for the next two years. If you don’t like this agreement, explain why. They didn’t explain why. The fact that the Iranian leaders have done bad things, and are still doing bad things, doesn’t mean we don’t try to improve the situation and reduce the threats.
HH: Now in deference to…
LG: And if there were a Republican president today, I’d guarantee you that Jim Baker, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, etc., the Bushes would be negotiating with them to see if you could reduce the threat to our selves and to our friends and allies.
HH: For the benefit of the audience, who you’ve read the letter and I’ve read the letter. I’m going to take one minute to read it for them. It’s not very long:
“An open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,
It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our Constitutional system. Thus, we are writing to bring to your attention two features of our Constitution – the power to make binding, international agreements, and the different character of federal offices which you should seriously consider as negotiations progress.
First, under our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays a significant role in ratifying them. In the case of a treaty, the Senate must ratify by a 2/3rd vote. A so-called Congressional executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House and Senate, which because of procedural rules effectively means a 3/5th vote in the Senate. Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.
Second, the offices of our Constitution have different characteristics. For example, the president may serve only two four-year terms, whereas Senators may serve an unlimited six year term. As applied to today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January, 2017, and most of us will remain in office well beyond then, perhaps decades. What these two Constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an agreement with the stroke of a pen, and future Congresses could modify the terms of an agreement at any time.
We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our Constitutional system, and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress, sincerely, 47 Senators. I don’t read in there telling the Ayatollahs to ignore the President.”
LG: Well, look, you’re a very smart guy, and you’re very well-informed. And you understand the difference between what those words say and what they mean. And look, why did the 7 Senators, including some of the most respected in that joint, like Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee not sign it? Because they knew what it meant, not what the words said, but what they would convey. And you understand that, too.
HH: I actually…
LG: It was a smack in the face of the president of the United States. And if Democrats did that, and you know, I’ve never been associated with parties in my life, Democrat or Republican. I’m a nothing. And I voted for both Republicans and Democrats regularly. And if Democrats had done this, I would have written the same article, because whatever they’re trying to pretend now that they see the reaction, the intent was what I say, and Corker and his six colleagues saw that very clearly, and that’s the reason they didn’t sign it.
HH: Well, and we close on this. I believe that the 47 are saving us from a Munich, and that they did not act in near treachery. And the only thing I object to in your objection, you have a lot of experience and a lot of gravitas, but to accuse 47 Senators of near treachery is almost McCarthyist, isn’t it? Isn’t it trying to silence dissent?
LG: No, I don’t think that. I think it would have been, it would have been, as some did, accuse them of being traitorous And I don’t think they went quite that far, but boy, they went near that line.
HH: Boy, we just disagree, Dr. Gelb.
LG: That’s why I said, that’s why I said “near.”
HH: Boy, I hope that 1994 does not show itself again. But if it does, we’ll wish there had been 100 Senators on this letter. I appreciate your time, though, thank you for joining me.
LG: Good enough.
End of interview.