In 1786-7, a number of prominent American leaders corresponded about the new nation's slide towards anarchy. The national government established by the Articles of Confederation was too weak to perform essential functions. States issued their own currencies, many of which had become worthless. In Massachusetts economic and monetary problems had led to an armed insurrection, Shay's rebellion. In addition, the Confederacy had no way to make states take steps necessary to enforce the peace treaty signed with the British in 1783, inviting a British resort to war against an entirely undefended nation. The result was the Constitutional convention in Philadelphia and the drafting of the new Constitution, which solved these problems within a decade--a fantastic achievement. There is a rather wonderful symmetry to the origins of the United States as we know it. An excess of governmental authority provoked the revolution that began in 1775; a deficit of it led to the writing of the Constitution. The Founders, in short, had learned from experience that either too much authority or too little could be fatal to liberty.
Today's news indicates that we are sliding towards a similar moment in our history. Having joined with the other leading powers of the world to reach an agreement severely constraining Iran's nuclear program, President Obama faces unanimous opposition to it from Republicans in Congress, as well as some Democrats. As the New York Times reports today, the White House has now agreed to a measure--the Corker-Menendez bill--that will give Congress 60 days to pass a resolution of approval or disapproval of an agreement once it is reached. If Congress passes a resolution of disapproval over the President's veto, the proposed law specifically states that some sanctions against Iran--those mandated by Congress--cannot be lifted. That would either kill the deal, or leave the United States completely isolated among the major powers of the word, including the European Union.
There are two reasons that Congress might do just that. The first, of course, is that Congressional Republicans remain committed to the strategy they adopted in January 2009: to oppose resolutely anything that President Obama wants to do. The second, which the Times story today manages to avoid mentioning entirely, is the power of AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, over Congress. AIPAC is closely allied with the Netanyahu goernment and thus has sought to kill the deal with Iran. Exactly how AIPAC keeps Congress in line was detailed nine years ago in a brilliant article by Michael Massing in The New York Review of Books, which I summarized on May 21, 2006. It ranks with the NRA as one of the lobbies which no vulnerable member of Congress dares to cross. The real question before us today is whether AIPAC actually intends to use the new resolution to block the lifting of sanctions by mobilizing veto-proof majorities in its favor. A brief news item on AIPAC's web site specifically refers to that very possibility. Peter Baker, who wrote the Times story, certainly has the resources to run down that question, but he chose not to use the words "Israel" or "AIPAC" in his story. Well-informed sources in Washington have confirmed to me that AIPAC indeed wants to pass such legislation over the President's veto to kill the deal, but they co not believe that AIPAC can get enough Democrats in both the House and Senate to vote their way to override a Presidential veto. I am not so sure.
The United States achieved its position of world leadership after the Second World War because legislators put partisanship aside. A Republican Congress, filled with isolationists, passed the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in 1948. In 1951, as Robert Caro has shown, archconservative Senator Richard Russell of Georgia made sure that General MacArthur could not use Congressional hearings to mount a real challenge to President Truman's authority after Truman had relieved MacArthur in Korea. Congress gladly went along with President Nixon's SALT agreement and with successive steps by Nixon, Ford and Carter to normalize relations with the government of China. Under Ronald Reagan Congress made a half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt to prevent the sale of AWACS early warning aircraft to Saudi Arabia, which the Israeli government opposed. The Iranian deal is however the first time in a long time that any President has taken a step that the Israeli government opposes, and its fate will show how much power remains in the White House in our partisan age.
I have said many times here that my grandparents' and parents' generation bequeathed an extraordinarily stable world, at home and abroad, to Boomers like myself. I have also said that most of us took it entirely for granted and took advantage of it to indulge our every personal and political whim. This has destroyed any national consensus on the most fundamental issues before us, and it is not clear where a new consensus might come from. But the real question, which I raised in the last paragraph of No End Save Victory, is whether the disintegration of our institutions will reach the point where our civilization can no longer function effectively.