Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 3rd, 2008
I received an e-mail from Representative Chris Van Hollen’s office last week on the subject of H.Con.Res. 362, known to its detractors as the “Iran blockade resolution.” (The e-mail may be read here.)
A disturbing part of that resolution (in my opinion) is:
[Congress] demands that the President initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program;…
(emphases added) …which — given this administration’s “ready, fire, aim” methods — still seems to me like “waving a red cape in front of a bull in a china shop.” The gist of Van Hollen’s response to my own e-mail expressing opposition to H.Con.362 is this:
Some have interpreted language in the resolution as authorizing a blockade of Iran. The resolution makes no mention of military pressure-much less a blockade. H. Con. Res. 362 calls for the President to seek the international community’s support for an export ban on refined petroleum, not a blockade. Iran does not export refined petroleum products, it imports them. Therefore an export ban on refined petroleum would be enforced by customs inspectors and export administrators on the territories of the exporting countries, not in the Persian Gulf. This method is already in use by the international community, including the United States to enforce the four existing UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran.
Finally, I draw your attention to the final whereas clause of the resolution which states in explicit language, “Whereas nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran.” Since a naval blockade is by definition the use of force, the language of the final whereas clause of this resolution renders the prospect of a naval blockade simply out of the question.
First, it is of no consequence whatsoever that Iran imports refined petroleum products — in fact, preventing imports is the traditional purpose of a blockade. Second, the resolution itself speaks of “stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran.”
Now I’m not alone in suspecting that the language of the resolution is a reckless demand for a naval blockade — whatever its sponsors may have intended, the measures envisioned can not be carried out without inspections and, if necessary, interdictions at sea. From a July 10, 2008 letter by Lawrence Korb, Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan (ret.), and Lt. General Robert Gard, Jr. (ret.) urging Congress to abandon the resolution:
• The language demanding the President initiate an international effort “prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran,” is of particular concern because despite the protests of its sponsors, we believe that implementation of inspections of this nature could not be accomplished without a blockade or the use of force.
• Immense military resources would be required to implement such inspections of cargo moving through the seas, on the ground and in the air. The international community has shown no willingness to join in such an activity. Without a Security Council Resolution, implementation of these measures could be construed as an act of war.
The resolution’s supporters’ chief argument is that the bill explicitly does not authorize the use of force. But this is an especially odd argument for Rep. Van Hollen to be making — because in 2007 he helped vote down the DeFazio Amendment merely asserting that “[n]o provision of law enacted before the date of the enactment of this Act shall be construed to authorize the use of military force by the United States against Iran.”
In a bizarre defense of that vote, Van Hollen argued that he was “wary of passing legislation that says the President may not violate the Constitution with respect to one country (such as Iran), because singling out one country only could lead to the false impression that the Congress would countenance unauthorized and unconstitutional military actions against another country (such as Syria).” Van Hollen may believe what he likes about his votes; taken at face value, the two votes add up to (1) an explicit demand that ships heading to Iran be stringently inspected, and (2) the assertion by negation that there are provisions of law authorizing military force against Iran.
In other words, Van Hollen is wrong even by his own standards in claiming H.Con.Res 362 by itself contains the language that would prevent a blockade. If I know my imperial Presidency, there are a great number of other existing statutes and executive orders supplying halfway plausible authority to do whatever the president wants to do and is given even a pale green light to do so. And between the defeat of the DeFazio Amendment and the signal given by this resolution, they would be getting a giant, blinking, neon green sign to do so. We might then be treated to legal hairsplitting whether “stringent inspections” at gunpoint constituted a blockade similar to the “debate” on whether mistreatment short of organ failure constituted torture.
Now despite all this — and despite my support for his opponent this election, Gordon Clark (Green) — it has been my impression that Mr. Van Hollen is a smart, capable guy. He runs the DCCC; he appears on Sunday talk shows; he takes some good positions on issues like labor and torture — even if one might wish for more and for more risk-taking leadership on these and other issues (notably global warming). So I wondered where he was getting his information.
I may have found the answer: a July 8th statement by H. Con. Res. 362 sponsor Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY-5). The text of this speech rang a bell, and when I compared the speech with the e-mail, there was a great deal of overlap. In fact, everything highlighted in blue above is taken word for word from that July 8th statement. While Ackerman may not have had the benefit of the advice in the July 10th letter cited above, Rep. Van Hollen should have — this is not something to be putting together a hasty cut-and-paste job about.
The remarkable thing is that early last month, H. Con. Res. 362 was shelved by his House colleagues because of precisely the concerns outlined above. Over the summer, several prominent liberal Congressmen including Barney Frank and Robert Wexler acknowledged their mistake and withdrew their co-sponsorship of the bill. Frank wrote a peace activist to say:
“I agree that this should not be our policy, and I regret the fact that I did not read this resolution more carefully … I’m going to consult with the authors to see if a change can be made that would omit this language, and if they are unwilling to do that, I will make very clear my disagreement with this in the most appropriate form. I apologize again for not having read this more carefully.”
This seems like a forthright and simple way out for Rep. Van Hollen, too. There’s no need for him to tie himself to war-mongering language that thankfully seems to be going down in flames. Should he be re-elected, I hope he’ll do the right thing that Rep. Barney Frank did — withdraw his co-sponsorship, and either insist on modifications making this resolution less dangerous, or simply refuse to go along with this kind of propaganda effort at all any more.
For the real point of resolutions like this is to express Beltway conventional wisdom to all who care to listen, and to continue to instill fear of Iran for a nuclear weapons program our own intelligence community has judged with high confidence was halted in 2003. Representative Van Hollen shouldn’t be a part of that. The Republic of Iran, like it or not, has the perfect right to avail itself of nuclear power, and to enrich uranium to that end. It would be far more constructive to support a proposal for an internationally run enrichment facility, and eschew the kind of saber rattling represented by H. Con. Res. 362.
Meanwhile, though, and at minimum, I’d like the benefit of my representative’s own thoughts on these kinds of issues, and not those of someone else’s — particularly when I’m being told my concerns are “simply out of the question.”