Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland is not very well known to the public, overshadowed as he is by his own party’s more newsworthy and photogenic congressional leadership and the gaggle of Republicans that is currently lining up in a bid to take the White House. Cardin is, by most accounts, a conventional liberal. He was active in the civil rights movement and embraced every progressive cause in his pre-senatorial days while his voting record both as a congressman and a senator has been reliably left-of-center.
Ben Cardin is the scion of a Baltimore family heavily involved in Maryland state politics. He, his father and uncle all served in the State Assembly and his father was later a judge. All three are lawyers and all were closely connected to Maryland’s politically powerful Jewish community, concentrated in Montgomery and Baltimore counties, which has been traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party.
As an elected official, Cardin regards himself as personally responsible for delivering benefits to his Jewish constituents. He sponsors the Senator Ben Cardin Jewish Scholars Program and also has been active in steering Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants to what he calls “high risk” Jewish organizations in Baltimore. Due to the assiduous efforts of Congressmen like Cardin fully 97% of all DHS grants go to Jewish groups.
Support for Israel is inevitably a sine qua non in Cardin’s circle and candidates for higher office in Maryland are routinely screened for the views on the Middle East. Donna Edwards, an African-American congresswoman who is currently running to fill the seat that will be vacated by incumbent Senator Barbara Mikulski in 2016, has, for example, fallen afoul of the Jewish community thought police on the Israel issue. Though repeatedly asserting her love and support for Israel she is being castigated because “she has regularly ducked resolutions and letters backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Washington’s dominant Israel lobby, which takes a harder line in support of the country’s self-defense.” She also voted “present” rather than “yes” when the House of Representatives passed its malicious 2009 resolution endorsing Israel’s right to use overwhelming firepower to defend itself against bottle rockets from Gaza. More recently she boycotted the speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because she believed it to be an affront to the President of the United States. Even though Edwards has never in any sense voted against Israel in any substantive way she is clearly regarded as not subservient enough by those who matter.
Cardin, who received donations of $218,000 from the Israel Lobby for his 2012 Senate race alone, is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, a position he acquired when disgraced New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez was forced to step down. He has been in the news lately for taking on a seemingly uncharacteristic task in the Senate, having co-sponsored with Republican Bob Corker a bill that will require the Senate to vote on any agreement that President Obama makes with Iran. The bill, which passed out of the Foreign Relations Committee by a unanimous 19-0 vote, has been described as a watered down version of a more rigorous bill crafted by the Republican majority, enabling a number of Democrats to add their support.
Recognizing that it might be a less bad option, a reluctant President Barack Obama, perhaps unwisely, has even pledged not to veto the revised bill. The stated intention of Corker-Cardin is to permit the congress to have some voice regarding what is undeniably a major foreign policy issue. Supporters want the country’s legislature to be able to indicate their lack of support for a bad bill, if that should turn out to be the case.
Though the bill is being described as a compromise it does not really change very much. While the president can on his own authority suspend sanctions on Iran, the passage of the bill would delay his ability to do so until after Congress has between 30 and 82 days (depending on details) to review the deal and vote for or against it. And while the president can indefinitely suspend their implementation, only Congress can actually cancel the sanctions because they are mandated through legislative authority.
Thus Congress can hold up a final agreement but the bill does not actually require congressional approval for an agreement to be implemented. And though Congress could theoretically block any lifting of its own legislative sanctions on Iran, it would require a two-thirds vote of both the Senate and House to override the expected Obama veto. Nevertheless, Obama’s agreement to allow a vote does concede that Congress has a potential oversight role in foreign policy, something that the president would have chosen to avoid.
The assumption that Cardin, a loyal Democrat, was interested in producing a compromise to help the president attain a negotiated agreement to eliminate Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapons program is intriguing but not completely convincing given the Senator’s demonstrated inclination to see U.S. foreign policy from the point of view of Israel. And interestingly enough, AIPAC also supports the Corker-Cardin bill as-is and has resisted attempts by Republicans to make it stronger.
Why would that be the case as AIPAC consistently calls for forceful action against Iran? It might be because, appearances aside, Cardin is not acting in good faith and is actually likely to be working hand-in-hand with AIPAC to accomplish two things. First, he almost certainly wants to reestablish complete congressional bipartisanship on any and all issues relating to Israel, countering the troubling Republican Party’s alignment of its own foreign policy interests with those of Benjamin Netanyahu. As an AIPAC official has expressed it, “Our fundamental view is that this bill is the first step of a number of different steps on the Iran deal. The first and foremost priority is to make sure the bill gets passed to make sure congress is guaranteed a chance to pass judgment on the deal.”
This means that both AIPAC and Cardin want the modified Corker bill to pass but they want that to happen in expectation that the Obama White House agreement with Iran will eventually fail in a bipartisan fashion with more than two-thirds of congressmen in opposition. By some estimates, AIPAC believes that it already has the votes in hand in the Senate at least to do just that and expects that a number of Democratic Senators to include Charles Schumer of New York, who regards himself as “Israel’s guardian” in the upper chamber, will join Republicans in voting against the president.
The AIPAC comment that the bill is a “first step” is critical to understanding what is going on while Senator Ben Cardin’s regard for Israel and its presumed interests should be taken as a given. In March Cardin spoke at AIPAC’s annual gathering where he promised to introduce legislation to block European attempts to boycott or sanction Israeli exports produced in the occupied territories. Cardin’s mixed-up view of a progressive world order combined with deference to what he regards as Israeli interests were notably on display one week after his agreement with Corker when he delivered on his promise.
On April 21st Cardin and his House colleague Peter Roskam attached at the last minute AIPAC drafted amendments to an omnibus trade bill that committed the United States government to use its leverage in trade agreements to block European Union efforts to boycott or sanction products being produced in Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements. The issue is of some consequence as the EU is Israel’s largest export market. The Cardin-AIPAC amendment includes language making it a primary U.S. objective to protect both products from Israel and from what is referred to by the euphemism “Israeli-controlled territories,” a curious position for a U.S. Senator to be taking as United States policy has long been opposed to the settlements and has frequently declared them to be illegal.
Cardin hypocritically justified his amendment by stating “I think it’s critically important that the provisions that are included…for good governance and respect for international human rights need to be a principle trade objective.” Concerning Cardin’s stated respect for international human rights, it should be noted that he enthusiastically supported boycotting apartheid South Africa even though he is opposed to the Palestinians using the same legal and non-violent expedient to obtain their freedom from a brutal Israeli occupation. To that end Cardin characteristically is willing to put U.S. interests on a back burner so he can use American trade policy to protect Israel while perversely cloaking his turpitude in faux sentiments about doing the right thing.
Finally, it is the ultimate irony that the sanctimonious junior Senator from Maryland serves as the ranking member of the U.S.-Helsinki Commission on Human Rights. He recently traveled with his wife by way of military Gulfstream to Copenhagen for official meetings arranged by that organization, stopping for a couple of days in Paris where he stayed in a five star hotel and met with Jewish leaders. The issue of Palestine apparently did not come up.