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(photo credit: AP)
The subject was the State Department's budget, but that didn't keep leading Democratic senators from using the opportunity to admonish Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her administration's Iran policy when she appeared at a recent Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
"Our Iran policy is a train wreck in the making," said committee member Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut). "The combination of our increasingly confrontational rhetoric and actions against Iran, coupled with a lack of serious dialogue with Iran's leaders, is extremely worrisome."
Committee chairman Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) asserted Congress's role on the topic, charging, "If the president believes that the threat posed by Iran requires military action, he should come to the Congress, and by extension the American people, to seek the legal authority to undertake it. He has no such authority to wage war against Iran today."
More definitive were the words of those who didn't speak at the hearing.
Signs held up by Code Pink protesters in the audience urged: "No war in Iran." Though the foreign policy debate in America has been focused on Iraq, these women demonstrators didn't reference that conflict in any of their various banners. The choice of Iran indicates they are preparing for the next battle over not going to battle, and it is a fight they have considerably more chance of winning than they did in the run-up to the second Iraq war. Back then, theirs was a marginal view, but now what they're saying is being echoed in key political arenas. And the war in Iraq - its intelligence and military failures - has only given them a louder voice.
As Dodd argued, "There is a serious lack of trust in the administration's credibility on these matters after our experiences with Iraq."
He told Rice, "I would strongly urge that you keep this committee and this Congress very fully informed about events on the ground and any policy decisions that are in the offing."
These statements, and similar ones recently expressed by other leading Democrats, have put Bush on notice that if his hands aren't tied when it comes to military action on Iran, they aren't free of the chains of Congress and public opinion either.
"Anybody who's looking at American foreign policy and thinking the president is going to be given the flexibility he was given in 2002-3 is deluding himself," said National Jewish Democratic Council executive director Ira Forman. Forman maintained that many Americans - including many Jews - are relieved by that notion, given Bush's international track record.
But it worries some in the Jewish community who want Bush to have as much latitude as possible to take the steps he sees as necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon - including, if it comes to it, military action.
"It's a concern," said one Washington-based official of a Jewish organization, relating to both the statements coming out of Congress and the effect of the administration's credibility gap on public support for acting tough on Iran.
"This is the danger. If people see this as just 'crying wolf' yet again, it's going to be more difficult," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities surrounding the Iran issue.
Morris Amitay, former executive director of AIPAC, considers the congressional posturing on the issue distressing.
"You send the wrong signal to a country, Iran, which does not wish us well, when you look as though you're trying to prevent the president from taking action," he said. "You're sending a message of disunity, of lack of purpose, a lack of recognition of the threat."
He continued, "When you're in a situation where there are threats... you have to [have] flexibility to act as commander-in-chief."
WHEN IT comes to what Congress is sending to Bush, could it be more than just a message? The US Constitution gives Congress the sole authority to declare war, but as commander-in-chief, Bush has wide discretion when it comes to taking military action, and Amitay noted that no American armed engagement since World War II has been accompanied by a formal declaration of war. At the same time, the War Powers Act passed by Congress due to the quagmire in Vietnam requires the president to consult with the legislature on military activity.
Thus, Biden's warning about Bush's lack of authorization could serve as a judicial hang-up rather than an administrative one. On the other hand, Congress controls the government's purse strings, and as such could seriously limit Bush's military activity.
But, according to Thomas Mann, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, "The most powerful tool in the arsenal of Congress is political, not legal. Highly visible hearings, statements and sense of Congress resolutions can impose enormous costs on the administration in launching a military strike. These deny the president the boost in public support he might otherwise expect, and make it less likely he will take this course."
Norman Ornstein, an expert on politics at the American Enterprise Institute, said that whatever Congress's prerogatives are over American military strikes, they will shrink considerably once armed action has begun.
He described Democrats in Congress as "in a box" when it comes to Iraq, since they oppose what's happening there, but are reluctant to take action - primarily cutting off funds - with troops on the battlefield.
In contrast, they have a much greater ability to speak out on Iran, as no military activity has yet begun, he said, which is part of why they are doing so.
"This is a kind of preemptive strike," he said, "that reminds [Bush] that Congress is the branch that declares war."
On the other hand, offered the Jewish official, Congress still recognizes that the executive determines military policy. "The administration holds more cards that anyone else, and members of Congress realize that, to some extent, that gives them the freedom to criticize."
YET FORMAN said that Democrats' statements should be considered in the context of what's actually happening now, as the Bush administration has upped the rhetoric on Iran, sent aircraft carriers to the region and detailed Iranian activity in Iraq as a basis for increasing action against Iranians there.
The Jewish official agreed that present-day politics are playing a role in the Democrats' stance - which helps put in perspective what is being said.
The Democrats, he said, "are trying to undermine the administration's standing on [foreign policy] issues, which is a natural part of the political process."
He added that when it came to these members' true feelings about the Islamic Republic, they all oppose a nuclear-armed Iran.
Indeed, Biden told Rice, "The threat posed by Iran and its nuclear ambitions is real. And any administration would and should use any means necessary to protect our soldiers."
The Jewish official acknowledged, however, that the general public might not have the same appreciation as Congress does for that threat, and could be less amenable to the case for action against Iran because of what's happened in Iraq.
"Of course it will be harder, but fortunately I think the case is stronger," he said. "I think there will be resistance, but ultimately I think the case is sufficiently strong."
And then, of course, there's the question of whether Bush himself would be deterred because of political or public opposition.
"If this president had less of a spine, or was up for reelection, or felt he needed to be more responsive to public opinion polls or Congress, then I think it would make a bigger difference," said a lobbyist for a national Jewish organization. "A lame duck president who hasn't been driven by public opinion is going to do what he thinks he needs to do, regardless of what the Congress or the public or polls say."