Sunday, November 24, 2013

Going Nuclear

Democrats say "YEA!"
Nobody got blown up, no document got flash-fried, no edifice of our governmental institution was levelled. References to "fallout" were a natural headline selection, but there is no radiation leaking from the Senate's 52-48 vote to change its own rules and allow simple majorities to bring cloture on their constitutional "advice and consent" role of approving Presidential nominations to Executive branch positions and Federal judiciary posts (with the exception of the U.S. Supreme Court).

Instead, this was a thoroughly pragmatic decision to allow qualified nominees to break through the party lines and perform their duties.  The fall of previous accommodations to allow a limited number of individuals to run through the gauntlet and preserve the unlimited debate, enforced by the lack of a super-majority,which was no debate, just a block--this was driven to a fairly extreme measure by the unlimited recalcitrance by the Republican minority.  Their ability to block selected nominations was ruined by their inability to limit it to selected ones.  Nominees, particularly for the agencies the Republicans didn't like, had to put their careers on hold for years while waiting for action that was not forthcoming.  That kind of sacrifice was impeding the ability of the Administration to govern, so something needed to be done.

We should not make too much of the change involved--this does not create "tyranny of the majority", as it does not pertain to legislation.  This blocking ability was not enshrined in the constitution in any way, and I suspect that minority members will still be able to filibuster--retain the floor and speak indefinitely--a given nomination if they can muster the lungpower and the support of colleagues, and that, rather than this perverse application of the rules that was occurring, is much more in line with the tradition of Senate filibuster*.

The thing that is most ominous to me about it is that the particular resolution--no change to legislative rules, the Republicans bearing it and promising revenge--is based on a somewhat shared set of calculations:  no big change to the Republican House majority or to the narrow edge (one way or the other) in the Senate, and a probability that the Republicans gaining control of both Houses and the White House in 2016 is more likely than the Democrats' doing so.

I don't actually share that calculation:  I think the Republicans are headed for a major collapse in the next general election (2016, not 2014) unless they change their ways.  I salute the young Democratic Senators--particularly Tom Udall of New Mexico and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who refused to accommodate themselves to ineffectiveness--and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was moved to act by a combination of careful calculation and by the refusal of his counterparts to heed his threats.

Iran Says, "Not Quite So Much"
The achievement of an interim deal between Iran and the global community--to freeze Iran's nuclear enrichment program for six months, while releasing a small amount of funds impounded by the sanctions--is a success above all for new Iranian President Rouhani and his policy of seeking more regular relations with the rest of the world, particularly the West.  The second winner is President Obama, who said he would talk with Iran and had gained nothing from that willingness until now. The third winner is the countries of Russia and China; they were uncomfortable with the severity of the sanctions with which they had reluctantly agreed.  Now they see the benefits of working with the West to achieve a goal, which will encourage more participation and more leverage for them in the future.

Are there any losers?  Only those who sought the military option in the near future.  I figure those--some elements of Israel's ruling coalition, some of the Sunni Islam forces, maybe some of the hawks in the US--guessed that they could stay out of the mess which would ensue, and then sweep up more power from the chaos that would follow when Iran's ambitions would be definitively thwarted.  Secretary of State John Kerry is a potential loser; if this policy fails, he will be the one blamed.  Even the more hardline factions in Iran should be able to benefit from supporting relaxation of tensions, if it helps with the economy and prevents the devastation of the regime.

I think we should all be realistic about the longer-term result, something that will become clear over the next six months if Iran complies with the agreement, as I believe it will.  Iran will continue to develop its nuclear program, albeit with renewed supervision.  They will pass off uranium enriched to the danger level or beyond, but they can make more (or buy more) if tensions rise again.  From a game theory point of view, Iran has correctly concluded that their leverage is maximized when they maintain the potential to make nuclear weapons in a fairly short time, but don't actually do so.  We can hold the clock/calendar of potential nuclear war with Iran at 90 days or so.   Real improvement in relations with the US may be possible, but it will not happen through a comprehensive rollback of the nuclear program, but with a change in Iran's level of destructive participation in the internal wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon.  These may not be likely.   I don't see a peace treaty signing occurring between Obama and Supreme Leader Khamenei (or his successor, if he dies)--and Obama should meet with no one else, as I pointed out years ago.

* For the classic novelistic treatment of the Senate's role and the filibuster's role in nomination approval, by a rabid anti-Communist, see Allan Drury's Advice and Consent, a favorite from my childhood.

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