As always, Winston Churchill said it best. Here he is on March 24, 1938, speaking less than two weeks after the Anschluss, the Nazi annexation of Austria:
"For five years I have talked to the House on these matters—not with very great success. I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little farther on there are only flagstones, and a little farther on still these break beneath your feet. ... That is the position—that is the terrible transformation that has taken place bit by bit."
Churchill, needless to say, didn't resign himself to this transformation. "Now is the time at last to rouse the nation. Perhaps it is the last time it can be roused with a chance of preventing war."
Churchill failed. The government policy remained one of appeasement. The nation was not roused. Six months later was Munich. And then, a year later, war.
This week, for the first time since President Obama abandoned, after his reelection, the traditional bipartisan and international policy of pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program, the United States Senate will have a sustained debate on the administration's Iran policy. For the first time! The op-ed pages and the journals have been full of arguments about the path the administration has been proceeded down. Indeed, what's remarkable is how many serious observers, including many sympathetic to the notion of a negotiated deal with Iran, have been critical of the administration's repeated cascades of concessions.
But Congress? No. The administration has succeeded in averting votes on various pieces of legislation, and therefore in preventing a real and sustained Congressional debate on its Iran policy. So the elected representatives of the American people haven't weighed in.
Now they have a chance to do so. The occasion is the Corker-Cardin bill, reported out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which establishes a process for congressional review of whatever deal the administration reaches. It's a toothless bill, setting up a process which allows Congress, in reaction to a deal, to stop the president from waiving or removing sanctions on Iran—which is of course something Congress could do in any case, at any time. So the bill sets up a process that allows Congress to do something they can do without that process.
There is no reason to think that passage of this bill, as it now stands, significantly increases the chance of reversing such a deal once it is agreed to. There is every reason to think, if the bill passes without serious debate, that it will have the opposite effect—of giving the illusion that Congress is really doing something to stop or slow down a bad deal when it is not.
So as it stands, the bill is at worst misleading, at best toothless. But there will be efforts on the floor of the Senate to implant teeth in the legislation's clammy gums. Various senators are planning to offer amendments specifying what provisions would need to be in a deal to make it worthy of congressional support. These amendments range from requiring that Iran stop denying international inspectors access to certain sites, to insisting Iran stops spinning centrifuges at such sites, to making sure that sanctions relief is gradual and based on Iranian behavior rather than immediate and based only on Iranian promises, to requiring that Iran stop engaging in terror against Americans or supporting attempts to destroy Israel.
Some of these amendments will be more important or more usefully targeted than others. But they each need to be considered, and debated, and voted on. Such a Senate debate, and votes, could put the administration—and the Iranians—on notice as to what Congress would and would not accept, so Congress would not be in the position of having to overturn later an agreement entered into by the executive branch with a foreign government because of objections that have not been clearly stated in advance. It could also clarify what is at stake in this deal—not just the status of Iran's nuclear program and the sanctions on Iran, but the broader question of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East and the likelihood of a regional nuclear arms race. It could rouse the nation to a serious consideration about the stairway we are, under the guidance of the Obama administration, descending.