Iran hearings: The congressional grilling of John Kerry and Ernest Moniz shows how unfit to lead the GOP is.

The Iran Hearings Prove It: The Republican Party Can No Longer Be Trusted With the Presidency

The Iran Hearings Prove It: The Republican Party Can No Longer Be Trusted With the Presidency

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July 31 2015 7:42 PM

Not Fit to Lead

The Iran hearings have shown how the Republican Party can no longer be trusted with the presidency.

Sens. Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham question witnesses during a hearing about the Iran nuclear deal on July 29, 2015, in Washington, D.C.
Sens. Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham question witnesses during a hearing about the Iran nuclear deal on July 29, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If Republicans win the White House next year, they’ll almost certainly control the entire federal government. Many of them, running for president or aspiring to leadership roles in Congress, are trying to block the nuclear deal with Iran. This would be a good time for these leaders to show that they’re ready for the responsibilities of national security and foreign policy. Instead, they’re showing the opposite. Over the past several days, congressional hearings on the deal have become a spectacle of dishonesty, incomprehension, and inability to cope with the challenges of a multilateral world.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

When the hearings began more than a week ago, I was planning to write about the testimony of Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. But the more I watched, the more I saw that the danger in the room wasn’t coming from the deal or its administration proponents. It was coming from the interrogators. In challenging Kerry and Moniz, Republican senators and representatives offered no serious alternative. They misrepresented testimony, dismissed contrary evidence, and substituted vitriol for analysis. They seemed baffled by the idea of having to work and negotiate with other countries. I came away from the hearings dismayed by what the GOP has become in the Obama era. It seems utterly unprepared to govern.

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If you didn’t have time to watch the 11 hours of hearings conducted on July 23, July 28, and July 29, consider yourself lucky. Here are the lowlights of what you missed.

1. North Korea. In all three hearings, Kerry explained how the inspection and verification measures in the Iran deal are designed to rectify flaws that led to the failure of the North Korean nuclear agreement. He spent much of his opening statement outlining these differences. This made no impression. When the Senate held its next hearing a week later, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presiding Republican, dismissed the Iran agreement with a quip: “How did that North Korean deal work out for you?”

2. Israel. As evidence that the Iran deal is bad, Republicans point to criticism from Israel. But they seem more interested in the rhetoric of Israeli politicians than in the judgments of Israeli security experts. At the July 23 hearing, Kerry read from an article that quoted supportive statements about the deal from the former leaders of two Israeli intelligence agencies. Republicans batted the quotes away. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming scoffed, “That wasn’t even in the newspaper. That was a blog post.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina dismissed the statements as irrelevant because they didn’t come from elected officials. Why listen to experts when you can rely instead on quotes from politicians?

3. The IAEA’s “secret deal.” Kerry and Moniz have repeatedly explained that the International Atomic Energy Agency, which enforces nuclear conduct agreements, publicly evaluates each country’s compliance but keeps some details about inspection logistics private. The IAEA briefs other governments about its procedures but doesn’t give them the logistical documents. Republicans, having shrugged at this policy for decades, are suddenly outraged. Many of them seem to think the Obama administration is colluding with Iran and the IAEA. They claim that Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, has seen the IAEA’s Iran documents but won’t show them to Congress. In the House hearing on Tuesday, Rep. Ted Poe of Texas asserted that Rice “said that she has seen this deal with the IAEA.” Kerry corrected him: “Susan Rice’s quote is, ‘We know their contents, and we’re satisfied with them. We will share the contents of those briefings in full and classified sessions with Congress.’ She has not seen them. She has been briefed on them.”

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Kerry’s clarification should have settled the matter. But it didn’t. The next day, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma grilled Kerry:

Inhofe: Secretary Rice [sic] said she has seen the deal with the IAEA. … Did you see it at the same time, or prior to the time, that Secretary Rice saw it?
Kerry: Senator, National Security Adviser Rice has not seen it.
Inhofe: Well she said she did yesterday ...
Kerry: No. She has been briefed on it. I had—I gave her exact quote to Congressman Poe. … She has been briefed on it but has not actually seen it.
Inhofe: OK, I will give you her quote and make sure it is in the record here. … “She said six days ago she had seen it and reviewed it, and that Congress will get to see it in a classified session.”
Kerry: Senator, you are quoting Congressman Poe, and—
Inhofe: Who is quoting her. This is quotation marks.
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Republicans can be forgiven for misinterpreting Rice’s original statement. But why would they cling to that interpretation after being corrected? And why would they quote their own misinterpretations rather than what Rice said?

4. EMPs. In the July 23 Senate hearing, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin asked Moniz about a 2008 commission report on EMPs, electromagnetic pulses, which could be triggered by nuclear detonations and could knock out the U.S. power grid. Moniz, the former chairman of MIT’s physics department, has spent his career working in nuclear science. He told Johnson that he was unfamiliar with the report but that “if you look at our Quadrennial Energy Review published in April, we do identify EMP as a risk to transformers, and we are beginning to try to work up a response to that.”

In the hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas used this exchange to portray Moniz as an idiot:

Cruz: You told the United States Senate you hadn’t read the congressionally mandated commission on EMPs and that you didn’t know what an EMP was.
Moniz: That is incorrect. I said I did not know this 2008 report recommendations. I said I was quite familiar with the issue, and we all know about EMPs from airburst nuclear weapons.
Cruz: Secretary, let me read the testimony verbatim so that I don’t mischaracterize you. … “Senator Johnson: ‘Are you familiar with the EMPs commission 2008 report?’ ‘No, I am not, sir.’ ‘You’re not? Do you know—do you know what an EMP is?’ ‘You’ll have to explain it to me, please.’ ” I find that stunning. …
Moniz: That was about the report. If you read further in the testimony, you will see my explicit statement. Of course I know about the issue.
Cruz: Do you agree that an EMP detonated by Iran in the atmosphere could kill tens of millions of Americans? …
Moniz: It depends upon the specifics. These are highly variable—
Cruz: Does that mean, yes, it could?
Moniz: I said it is highly variable in its—
Cruz: OK. You’re refusing to answer the question.
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The most disturbing thing about this exchange isn’t Cruz’s obnoxiousness. It’s his intellectual confidence in the face of his own ignorance. He doesn’t know the slightest fraction of what Moniz knows about EMPs. Either Cruz doesn’t understand this difference between himself and Moniz, or he doesn’t care. He hasn’t even taken the trouble to read the full transcript. And when he’s given a complex scientific answer to a simplistic, politically crafted question, he rejects it. Can any thinking person, after reading this exchange, feel comfortable with Cruz as president?

5. Sanctions. Kerry uses the phrase snapback to describe how sanctions are automatically re-imposed if any permanent member of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, or Russia) decides Iran has violated its obligations. At the Wednesday hearing, Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska berated Kerry for using this term, since, although the agreement outlines this procedure, it doesn’t literally include the word snapback. Sullivan also argued that the term was misleading because, in originally building the sanctions, it “took years to get countries to divest out of the Iranian economy. It’ll take years to do it again.” But Sullivan ignored the implication of his own argument: As Kerry has said all along, the unhappiness of our allies about having to enforce these sanctions, let alone China and Russia, is why the sanctions won’t last if we reject these countries’ terms for the deal.

6. Pariahs. Republicans accuse Kerry and Obama of isolating them by agreeing to terms that suit our allies but don’t suit Congress. In the July 23 hearing, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee told Kerry, “You have turned Iran from being a pariah to now Congress being a pariah.” Sen. James Risch of Idaho offered the same complaint: “These negotiations have taken us from a situation where we had Iran exactly where we wanted them to now, if we don’t go along with this, then we are going to be the isolated pariah character.”

These Republicans speak as though they don’t understand that the Iran talks involved seven countries. The obtuseness isn’t confined to backbenchers. Corker chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rep. Ed Royce, who protested at the Tuesday hearing that the deal gave Russia and China “a say in where inspectors can and cannot go,” chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Do Republicans understand that international sanctions require international support and that when everyone else in the talks finds terms they can agree on, we can’t hold out for our own terms and expect sanctions to persist?

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7. Bad guys. Republicans think that because Iran is dangerous, we shouldn’t negotiate with it. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, one of the most outspoken critics of any deal, has consistently hammered this point. At the House hearing, Rep. Randy Weber of Texas repeatedly used the phrase “bad actor” to dismiss Iran and the idea of negotiating with it. Rep. Dave Trott of Michigan invoked a motto from his business career: “You can’t do a good deal with a bad guy.”

Have any of these men heard of Ronald Reagan? The Soviet Union? Red China? Do they understand that bad guys are exactly the sorts of people you end up negotiating with, particularly over nuclear weapons?

8. Indifference. Republicans think it’s weak and softheaded to care what Iran thinks. At the Tuesday hearing, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania told Kerry we should demand a better deal, “and if the ayatollah doesn’t like it and doesn’t want to negotiate it, oh, ‘boo-hoo.’ We’re here for America.” Weber, speaking for others in his party, ridiculed Kerry’s concerns about Iranian distrust of the U.S.: “Me and my colleagues were up here thinking, ‘Who cares?’ ” When Kerry replied that the Iranians wouldn’t have negotiated on Weber’s terms, the congressman scoffed, “Oh, my heart pains for them.” These lawmakers don’t seem to understand that much of a negotiator’s job consists of understanding, caring about, and accommodating the other side’s concerns.

9. Winning. Graham is running for president as a foreign-policy expert. But three hours of testimony on Wednesday about the difficulties of using military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program taught him nothing. Wrapping up the hearing, Graham demanded that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter answer a simple question: “Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins?” When he didn’t get the prompt answer he wanted, Graham thunderously answered the question himself: “We win!” He sounded like a football coach delivering a pep talk. The differences between football and war—what “winning” means, and what it costs—didn’t enter into his equation.

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10. Patriotism. You might think that Kerry’s service in Vietnam—a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts—would deter Republicans from challenging his patriotism. But you’d be wrong. At the House hearing, Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York lectured Kerry: “A lot of Americans have fought and died to make our country the greatest nation in the world. And you, sir, respectfully, you don’t have the power to surrender our greatness.” Cruz, who has never served a day in uniform, ended the Wednesday Senate hearing with this remarkable assault on the secretary of state:

Cruz: Gen. Soleimani, the head of the al-Quds forces, has more blood of American service members on his hands than any living terrorist. Under this agreement, the sanctions under Gen. Soleimani are lifted. Now, Secretary Kerry said to the families of those men and women who gave their lives, who were killed by Gen. Soleimani, we should apologize. …
Kerry: Sir, I never said the word apology. I never mentioned apologize. I said we should thank them for their extraordinary service. I never said the word apologize. Please, don’t distort my words.
Cruz: Secretary Kerry, it is duly noted you don’t apologize to the family members of the service members who were murdered by the Iranian military.
Kerry: That’s not what I said, senator. [I said] I thank them for their extraordinary service and I would remind them that the United States of America will never take the sanctions off Qasem Soleimani.
Cruz: Sir, I just want to clarity. Do you apologize or not?

There’s plenty more I could quote to you. But out of mercy, and in deference to the many dead and retired Republicans who took foreign policy seriously, I’ll stop. This used to be a party that saw America’s leadership of the free world as its highest responsibility. What happened? And why should any of us entrust it with the presidency again?