President Barack Obama’s warning that the Iran nuclear deal comes down to a choice “between diplomacy or some form of war” drew criticism from both the Senate’s Republican leader and the House’s No. 2 Democrat.
The bipartisan objections on Thursday indicated Obama’s most forceful speech yet urging U.S. lawmakers to approve the accord with Iran, delivered on Wednesday in Washington, may have backfired by giving an opening to critics of the deal and discomfiting potential supporters before Congress votes on the accord in September.
Obama “strikes me at least so far as treating this like a political campaign” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said during a press conference in the U.S. Capitol. “Demonize your opponents, gin up the base, get the Democrats all angry, and, you know, rally around the president.”
In the speech at American University in Washington, Obama said,“The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war.” He said some of those who oppose the agreement “accept the choice of war.”
At another point in the speech, Obama said, it’s Iran’s “hardliners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”
Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said the tone was counterproductive.
“Characterizing people who may be in opposition to the agreement as wanting to go to war as an alternative, I’m not comfortable with that, and I wish the White House wouldn’t do that,” Hoyer, who is leading a visit of 22 Democratic House members to Israel this week, said in an interview in Jerusalem on Thursday. “I don’t think the alternatives are going to war, and I’ve indicated that” to the White House.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest dismissed complaints about Obama’s characterization of the vote on the deal as a choice between diplomacy or war.
“The president was pointing out a simple fact,” he told reporters Thursday. If Congress does the “unthinkable” and kills the deal, the international coalition that supported sanctions would fall apart and Iran would “go back to doing what they did before,” he said. The opponents advocating killing the deal would leave military action as the only remaining option, according to Earnest.
“The suggestion that there is a better deal is a fantasy,” Earnest said.
In taking a more confrontational route, Obama rejected the counsel of some advisers who argued against describing war as the only alternative to the Iran agreement and linking a vote to reject the deal with support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Among other difficulties, said one of those advisers, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, many Democrats supported the decision to go to war in Iraq.
Those arguments were trumped by what this person called Obama’s personal aversion to what he called “a preference for military action over diplomacy.” That view predates the 2003 Iraq invasion, but it grew stronger as Iranian influence and Arab extremism in Iraq spread in the wake of the attack, the person said.
McConnell rejected the “absurd” idea that lawmakers must choose between the Iran deal and war.
“It’s either this deal or a better deal, or more sanctions,” McConnell said.
While McConnell promised a dignified debate when Congress returns from its August recess, he portrayed the Iran agreement in terms the White House would find objectionable.
He portrayed the accord reached between Iran and six world powers, including the U.S., as “entering into an agreement in which we are basically being asked to trust the biggest funder of terrorism in the world today.”
The administration has said Iran’s compliance with requirements to curb its nuclear program would be verified and sanctions against the Islamic Republic would “snap back” into place if it violated the accord.
In anticipation of a vote in the U.S. Congress to disapprove the accord next month, Obama and his allies are fighting a well-funded campaign to influence lawmakers by groups opposed to the deal, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. They also face adamant opposition by the Israeli government.
U.S. lawmakers have until the end of the day Sept. 17 to review the accord. If they pass a resolution of disapproval -- the likely outcome in the Republican-led House and Senate -- Obama has said he will veto it.
The White House is counting on having enough Democrats backing the deal to sustain a veto, which would stand unless two-thirds of Congress voted to override it.
McConnell declined to “handicap the outcome” on whether senators have the votes to override Obama’s promised veto if Congress sends him a resolution rejecting the agreement.
The Republican leader said he wants all senators at their desks on the Senate floor listening to debate, a departure from the usual practice of lawmakers declaiming to a largely empty chamber. No committee meetings will be scheduled during the debate, McConnell has said.
“This is an enormous national security debate,” McConnell said. “I think my members are going to delve into the details and make a decision based on what they think it is in the best long-term interest of our country.”
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