Shadow Government

Conservatives, be careful what you wish for

No doubt many Republicans in Washington are experiencing a bit of schadenfreude over the controversies swirling around the newly installed chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez. He is a bare-knuckled partisan who never backs down from a political brawl. So investigations into his alleged advocacy on behalf of a major donor -- including a salacious sidebar of unsubstantiated allegations about underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic -- have not surprisingly stirred some to try and fan the flames of what they hope to be the Senator's immolation.

For example, a group called the American Future Fund (touting itself as, "Advocating Conservative, Free Market Ideals") published a full-page ad in Politico this week with the subtle title: "Senate Ethics Committee: Meet Your New Chairman of ‘Foreign Relations.'"  Har har. 

Of course, if the worst of the accusations turn out to be true, then no one disputes the fact that the Senator should immediately resign and face the consequences. But there are ample reasons to hope that they are not -- first and foremost, for the sake of the alleged victims. Secondly, conservatives reveling in the senator's current predicament may want to stop and consider what Menendez's possible fall from grace would mean for U.S. national security interests.  

That's because on key foreign policy issues during his career -- pressuring Iran, defending Israel, and promoting regional security -- Menendez has been stalwart and, indeed, much more hard-line than his predecessor as chairman of SFRC, John Kerry, and, more importantly, than the next two Democrats in line of succession should he lose the chairmanship: the uber-liberal California Democrat Barbara Boxer and the nondescript, party-line Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. 

As just one example, Menendez recently bucked White House opposition by winning Senate passage of increased Iran sanctions in the 2012 Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, as well as authoring Iran sanctions provisions in recent defense authorization bills.

Soon after assuming the SFRC Chair, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I'm looking forward to working very closely with the administration, but I will always have my degree of independence on the things I care about." And those of us who have worked with him over the years know he cares about the right things: freedom, human rights, and taking the fight to America's enemies. 

No, Menendez is not warm and fuzzy, and more than a few fellow Republicans have borne the brunt of his ire. But looking out over the international landscape, with the U.S. facing myriad challenges in Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, and North Africa, the country can certainly use an SFRC chairman who is unabashed and unapologetic about defending U.S. interests abroad.

Whatever is going to happen with ongoing investigations is going to happen. Conservatives should just let the process play out, without the bells and whistles. If he is found guilty, then he will have to be held accountable. But one thing is certain: If Menendez loses his chairmanship of SFRC, it is not just his loss and the Democratic Party's loss, it is America's as well.

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National Security

North Korean nukes? Round up the usual suspects!

The international community's cynical and feckless response to North Korean nuclear testing evokes nothing more than Claude Rein's character in "Casablanca," who puts on an act for his Nazi overlords after the murder of their commander by ordering the Vichy police officers to "round up the usual suspects." With Pyongyang's most recent and dangerous test on Feb. 12, can we afford to just pretend we are serious yet again?

On the one hand, there is an obvious recognition that this time the response must be tougher. It will take time to conduct the forensics, but seismic readings suggest that the test may approach the 12 kiloton yield of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima (the last two tests were only a fraction of that size). More troubling, the North Koreans can claim -- with some honesty -- that they have been perfecting weaponization and miniaturization. And more troubling still, this test may have been conducted using uranium-based weapons. If so, then North Korea is poised to crank out multiple warheads underground (since uranium enrichment does not require the same cooling methods) where they cannot be detected. Those who say North Korea cannot actually use nuclear weapons without committing suicide forget that a large arsenal gives Pyongyang greater latitude for coercion over Japan and South Korea by just threatening to use or transfer those weapons. This is a dangerous threshold. So maybe the Security Council's immediate statement that it will take action against North Korea and the Chinese Foreign Ministry's "resolute" condemnation of the test mean there will be real sanctions this time.

On the other hand, the Chinese MFA statement is essentially the same one they issued last time North Korea conducted a nuclear test and Chinese officials have been explaining to journalists that they will only "fine tune" sanctions to show displeasure without upsetting the "balance" in their relationship with Pyongyang and Washington. Susan Rice is also reported to have said that the Security Council will "go through the usual drill," hopefully a misquotation because it is so obviously evocative of Claude Reins in "Casablanca."

Fortunately, Congress is preparing legislation to put pressure on the administration to do more this time. The North Korea Nonproliferation and Accountability Act of 2013 would not force the administration to do anything other than report back to Congress, but it will help those in the administration who argue that an entirely new level of sanctions are now needed. That package should include Chapter 7 (binding) Security Council sanctions, but also unilateral and coalition steps by the United States and partners to inspect all North Korean shipping and air traffic that enters their territory and to freeze all international banking transactions with North Korean entities through Section 311 of the Patriot Act. Those arguing against such measures have points they would rather not say in public: that enforcement of deeper sanctions creates tension with China we cannot afford now; that we would only have to lift new sanctions in order to get back to the table with Pyongyang (the way we returned North Korean funds frozen under the Patriot Act in 2005 in order to get the North Koreans back to the table in 2007); and, finally, that we have too many problems in foreign policy now with Syria and Iran to put pesky misbehaving North Korea on the front burner. All three points are shamefully wrong, which is why they will not hold up under the light of Congressional scrutiny: First, we will simply not get action from China without raising Beijing's level of discomfort by proving our readiness to take steps with our allies; second, we should never trade defensive measures against North Korean threats for the right to talk to North Korean diplomats (dialogue is fine, as long as it is not paid for); and, finally, the North Korean nuclear problem will be much harder later than it is now.  Let's hope that Congress keeps the spotlight on this problem, because real pressure on North Korea has to start somewhere.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images