WASHINGTON (AP) — Criticism of 47 Republican senators’ letter to Iranian leaders escalated Friday, and one of the lawmakers expressed misgivings about writing directly to an adversary to raise doubts about President Barack Obama’s nuclear negotiations.
Several newspapers that had endorsed the senators’ elections were harshly critical. A handful of conservative commentators and former GOP aides joined legions of liberals in calling the letter ill-advised.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who may face a tough re-election next year, defended the letter, but added, “If there was any regret, tactically, it probably would have been better just to have it be an open letter addressed to no one.”
Another signer, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, expressed similar thoughts. The letter “could have been addressed to other folks and gotten the message out,” Roberts said. “But I think the message is more important than who we send it to.”
All but seven of the Senate’s Republicans signed the letter, but no Democrats did. The letter warns Iran’s leaders that any negotiated agreement on their nuclear program could expire when Obama leaves office.
Democrats and some academics say the letter undermines Obama’s — and future presidents’ — ability to set foreign policy.
Republicans defended the letter, saying they must take dramatic steps to demand a voice in negotiations, because they fear Obama will be too soft on Iran. Some of the 47 senators, however, are taking heat back home from editorial pages that have supported them.
In Ohio, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Cincinnati Enquirer endorsed Sen. Rob Portman’s 2010 campaign, but they berated him this week for signing the Iran letter.
“The magnitude of this disgraceful decision,” a Plain Dealer editorial said, “shows the degree to which partisanship has gobbled up rationality on foreign policy.”
The Cincinnati Enquirer’s editorial said the letter “diminishes the dignity of the Senate by disparaging the president and presenting an amateur lesson on U.S. governance.” It praised Portman in general, but said he erred because “now, facing re-election, he’s nervous.”
Portman, appearing in Columbus Friday, said the letter will strengthen Obama’s hand in negotiations with Iran. But former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat hoping to unseat Portman next year, called the letter “disgraceful” in a fundraising letter.
In New Hampshire, The Telegraph of Nashua — which endorsed Sen. Kelly Ayotte in 2010 — chastised her for signing the letter.
“One wonders how loud and angry the Republican response would have been if a petty clan of Democratic senators had written an open letter to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev” during nuclear arms talks with Washington, the Telegraph editorial said.
In Illinois, the editorial page of the Peoria Journal Star, which endorsed Sen. Mark Kirk in 2010, said, “Our expectations were higher of Kirk.”
The Salt Lake Tribune similarly criticized Utah’s two senators — Republicans Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee — for signing the letter. The paper has endorsed Hatch’s elections.
Some of the seven GOP senators who didn’t sign the letter have gently questioned their colleagues’ actions.
“I just didn’t feel that it was appropriate or productive at this point,” said Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said it’s “more appropriate” to direct advice to the president than to leaders of adversarial nations.
Some former advisers to Republican presidents expressed similar views.
Michael Gerson — a Washington Post columnist who was chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush — said the letter’s “true scandal” is the seemingly rushed way it was handled.
“It was signed by some members rushing off the Senate floor to catch airplanes,” Gerson wrote. There was “no consultation with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has studiously followed the nuclear talks (and who refused to sign).”
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and an aide in both Bush administrations, said partisan overtures such as the GOP letter make the world more uncertain, dangerous and disorderly.
George Pataki, a former Republican governor of New York, said in an interview with ABC News’ “Top Line”: “Just imagine if, come 2017, there’s a Republican president and a Democratic Congress. ... Would Republican senators want a Democratic Senate sending a letter to a country when the president is engaged in negotiations? I don’t think so.”