President Trump’s sudden, massive escalation of the military conflict with Iran has freaked out large segments of the national-security Establishment. But one person who is not worried at all is Joe Lieberman, once the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate, currently a lobbyist for a Chinese telecommunications firm, and, as always, deeply concerned that “his” party is failing to line up behind the right wing of the Republican Party on a high-risk foreign-policy venture.
Lieberman’s argument, laid out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed today, will only come as a surprise to those laboring under the impression that his “thoughtful” manner implies actual thought. He begins by fretting that the parties disagree on Trump’s Iran strategy. “It’s understandable that the political class should have questions about it,” he concedes, “But it isn’t understandable that all the questions are being raised by Democrats and all the praise is coming from Republicans.”
In fact, it’s hardly true that “all the questions” about Trump’s policy are coming from Democrats — many members of Trump’s own administration have registered their intense dismay in the media at his policy, which has likely only gone through because Republican officials like James Mattis are no longer around to block it. Even if it was true, though, Lieberman doesn’t hold both parties equally responsible for disagreeing with each other. Instead, he proceeds immediately to blaming Democrats for failing to agree with Republicans:
After World War II, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, formed a bipartisan partnership with President Truman that helped secure the postwar peace and greatly strengthened America’s position in the Cold War. “Politics stops at the water’s edge,” said Vandenberg when asked why he worked so closely with a Democratic president. He added that his fellow Americans undoubtedly had “earnest, honest, even vehement” differences of opinion on foreign policy, but if “we can keep partisan politics out of foreign affairs, it is entirely obvious that we shall speak with infinitely greater authority abroad.”
In their uniformly skeptical or negative reactions to Soleimani’s death, Democrats are falling well below Vandenberg’s standard and, I fear, creating the risk that the U.S. will be seen as acting and speaking with less authority abroad at this important time.
Ah, so the “Vandenberg standard” is that Congress has to support the president’s foreign policy. Oddly, however, the Vandenberg standard fails to apply to Democratic presidents. Indeed, the last time we had a Democratic president, Republicans undermined his diplomatic strategy with Iran to the point of sending the Iranians a letter warning that they would refuse to uphold the agreement their president had made. This sabotage campaign did not concern Lieberman, who at the time was too busy forming a group lobbying against Obama’s diplomacy to notice that the sacred Vandenberg standard was being broached.
After bemoaning Democrats for their partisanship, he takes on the concern raised by Trump’s critics that killing Qasem Soleimani will “provoke a violent response.” (Lieberman does not bother to list other downsides of the killing, such as undermining Iran’s domestic opposition, infuriating Iraq’s government, freezing the campaign against ISIS, and alienating NATO allies, all of which have happened already.) Lieberman responds that we can’t worry our pretty little heads about what Iranians, or any foreign country, will do in response to something like killing their second-most-powerful person: “If we allow fear of a self-declared enemy like Iran to dictate our actions, we will only encourage them to come after us and our allies more aggressively.” Lieberman insists the killing will instead “diminish the chances of a wider conflict” by giving the Iranians “much to fear.”
Will the Iranians decide to cooperate with Trump rather than carry out the revenge they are loudly vowing to undertake? Conceivably. But Lieberman’s track record of predicting the course of this relationship is not encouraging. He has previously insisted, in 2018, that tearing up the Iran nuclear deal will make Iran “come back to the table and negotiate a total denuclearization,” and again, last year, that “history has shown that the best peaceful way to force a malevolent Tehran to change its behavior is to hit their bottom line.”
Somehow, Iran is acting in a way contrary to all the lessons Lieberman has drawn from history. Rather than backing down, it is lashing out. But Lieberman is confident that this latest escalation will do the trick.
Lieberman concludes his argument in a blaze of insinuation. In this incredible sequence of sentences, Lieberman floats the charge that Democrats really just hate using force against any bad guy anywhere. (He does not note that this charge is belied by events as recent as Democratic support for the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.) He then takes care to say he personally does not believe this, but that people are saying it anyway:
It is possible that anti-Trump partisanship isn’t behind Democrats’ reluctance to say they’re glad Soleimani is dead. It may be that today’s Democratic Party simply doesn’t believe in the use of force against America’s enemies in the world. I don’t believe that is true, but episodes like this one may lead many Americans to wonder whether it is.
Is it possible Joe Lieberman is being paid by his Chinese clients to support every Trump foreign-policy maneuver, however reckless, because China wishes to undermine American power? I don’t believe this is true, but episodes like this Lieberman op-ed will lead many Americans to wonder if it is.