Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky and the Senate Minority Leader, presented a model tonight, I thought, of how to criticize administration policies without inappropriately politicizing Israel’s security (unlike others). “The current administration’s policies,” he said, “however well intended, aren’t enough.”
But it wasn’t just his Southern politeness. McConnell presented rigorous, specific grounds for disagreement with the president: and not with his values or even his strategies, but his tactical policies.
Joining with AIPAC, he identified Iranian weapons-capability as the crucial red line, referring, in language borrowed from Israeli Defense Minister Barak, to a “zone of immunity from which [Iran] can coerce and intimidate other countries.”
Laying out Iran advances, McConnell concluded: “These things present not only a compelling case against Iran, but also, regretfully, against the administration’s current efforts to halt the Iranian regime’s nuclear weapons program.”
And: “The question isn’t whether we have the same goal. We do have the same goal. The question is why the administration’s efforts haven’t succeeded in halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
His answer? The first two years and change of engagement were an abject failure. “The administration’s mistake has been to attempt negotiations and sanctions consecutively rather than simultaneously,” he said. Again, disagree if you want, but there is no reason McConnell shouldn’t be allowed to respectfully point this out.
“The only way the Iranian regime can be persuaded to negotiate for its survival,” he added, “is if the administration imposes the strictest sanctions while at the same time” clearly threatening force. And since the administration appears unready to do that, he added, McConnell said he would do it himself: “Tonight I’m prepared to propose such a policy. If Iran at any time, at any time, begins to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States would use overwhelming force to end that program.”
This received a standing ovation, and also prompted the question: how does McConnell, a senator, think he will dictate U.S. national security policy? Isn’t that the president’s job?
Here was his solution: “If at any time the intelligence community presents Congress with an assessment” that Iran has starting enriching to weapons-grade or decides on a weapon, “I will consult with the president and the joint congressional leadership and introduce before the Senate an authorization of the use for military force.”
My guess this is kosher from an Article II perspective, but it still feels a little odd. It will be more interesting to see, tomorrow morning, what the folks who actually want to unseat President Obama as commander-in-chief have to say. My guess is they will be less civil, less reasonable, and less persuasive than the senator from Kentucky.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.