In the film Charlie Wilson's War, the rich and sexy political activist Joanne Herring asks the eponymous representative from Texas: "Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?" Wilson deadpans: "Well, tradition mostly."
So when Congress breaks with tradition and actually says something and then goes on to do something both bold and consistent — that should not go unremarked.
Last week, in a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress passed legislation imposing tough sanctions on the Islamist regime that rules Iran. In the Senate, the vote was 99 to 0. (Sen. Robert Byrd didn't vote; the 92-year-old politician passed away on Monday.) In the House, the tally was an overwhelming 408 to 8, with 17 members not voting.
This, too, was unusual: The legislation was strengthened in conference committee, where members of the Senate and House come together to "reconcile" their separate bills — to meld them into one. Generally, bills get watered down in conference as members settle for common denominators. This time, loopholes were closed and legislative teeth were sharpened.
The next step: President Obama needs to sign the bill (it's expected he will) and then forcefully implement it (less certain). The sanctions will not cut off food or medicine to ordinary Iranians. They will target Iran's oil and natural-gas riches — the lifeblood of the regime — and stem the flow of gasoline to Iran. Although Iran is among the world's major oil producers, it must import large quantities of gasoline because its rulers have built centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs rather than refineries to produce fuel for cars and trucks.
Obama would also be well-advised to address the Iranian people directly, making it absolutely clear that even as this punishment is imposed, his hand remains outstretched, awaiting Iranian leaders who don't want to break his thumbs.
Will sanctions, applied seriously, cause the regime to change its behavior — or cause Iranians to change the regime? No one knows. What we can say with certainty: This is the last peaceful means to that end, the only way left, short of military force, to do something about Iranian despots who are sorely oppressing their population at home, sponsoring terrorists abroad, facilitating the killing of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, building nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, threatening Israel with genocide, allying with America's enemies in Latin America, and vowing that a "world without America . . . is attainable." This is, without question, the most serious national-security threat of the 21st century. Passivity and appeasement should not be an option.
Something else surprising has occurred in recent days: Congress is restoring funds to missile defense. You may recall that, during his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to cut $10 billion from missile defense — a rather large percentage of the total, which, at that point, was roughly $9 billion. In his first year in office, $1.2 billion was hacked off and it appeared that missile defense was being seen as a salami that, year after year, would be sliced over and over.
But on June 4, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to increase missile-defense spending. The committee added $363 million to the 2011 missile-defense budget. The full House passed similar amendments. The 2011 National Defense Authorization Act is currently on the Senate calendar, awaiting a vote by the full Senate. Once Congress passes a final bill, this additional funding, combined with Obama's budget request of $9.9 billion, will bring total 2011 missile-defense spending to $10.3 billion — around where it was during the Bush years.
That represents progress — though it still will not get us close to what missile-defense proponents believe we urgently need: a comprehensive system, one capable of preventing any enemy missiles from reaching their targets. That was President Reagan's dream at a time when the technology to achieve it did not yet exist. Now it does. As the threats from Iran and North Korea grow, the case for delay shrinks.
One more item: President Obama has assigned Gen. David Petraeus to take command of the conflict in Afghanistan. Petraeus, of course, was the soldier President Bush put in charge of Iraq when the battle there seemed all but lost. Petraeus had strong Republican support then, and he will have strong support from Republicans and moderate Democrats now. Far-left groups such as MoveOn.org probably will not accuse the commander of "betrayal" for refusing to embrace defeat — as they infamously did in 2007.
Which reminds me of the scene in which Charlie Wilson asks Gust Avrakotos, the rumpled CIA operative: "What is U.S. strategy in Afghanistan?" Avrakotos replies: "Most strictly speaking, we don't have one. But we're working on it." "Who's 'we'?" asks Wilson. Avrakotos: "Me and three other guys."
If Obama will now assign three other guys whom Petraeus trusts on the diplomatic side, and give them adequate time and resources, the chances for a successful outcome in Afghanistan — and Pakistan and the broader war — will be a whole lot higher in the days ahead.