Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Iran Deal Shows Obama at his Best, the Republican Party at its Worst

No time for nuance, no less actually reading the agreement!  Republican Party leaders joined Israel’s fundamentalist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in denouncing President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran before the full details of the deal in question were actually known.  There was no end to the hyperbole the right-wing critics were willing to deploy in their efforts to convince Americans that the President had just a) sold his soul; b) given Iran the bomb; and c) caused The End of Israel (and possibly, killed Jesus, become a Kenyan citizen, and eaten some babies while he was about it).
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose foreign policy experience is limited to comparing striking workers to ISIS, predicted that the deal would be “one of America’s worst diplomatic failures”, claiming that the deal was “giving Iran’s nuclear weapons capability an American stamp of approval”. 
The problem for the Republicans is that the experts—the people who study and work in the arms control world, and who have experience in observing the successes and failures of treaties and agreements and inspection regimes—seem to think it’s a pretty good deal.  Walker’s claim, representative of his party’s criticism, is simply not true. 
In fact, most of the evidence so far suggests that the Republican candidates are simply reciting the same scripted lines they’ve been trotting out to attack negotiations with Iran for a year or more now.  I very much doubt that any of them carefully read the treaty document, or even think it’s important to do so.  They are not considering the President’s arguments on their merits, and they are not interested in the opinions of experts.  Probably the only deal with Iran that would satisfy one would be one wherein the country’s leadership begged to be bombed.
I’m normally not a fan of the President’s foreign policy (and less so of the unadulterated buffoonery advocated by the leadership of the Republican Party), but from what I have read of the deal, particularly from people in a better position to evaluate it than myself, it sounds like one of the most substantial diplomatic achievements of recent years, and one which stands to benefit both the U.S. and Iranians.
It is worth reading this interview with Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation and arms control expert, previously skeptical of the deal (note, his skepticism had always been that the Obama administration would be able to achieve the deal…he argues that the administration’s framework deal was actually very thorough and smart from the beginning).  The full interview, in which he assigns the deal an “A” grade, is accompanied by a visual.
I think it is also worth reading this piece, based on an extended interview, from Thomas Friedman.  In it, President Obama stressed that the public should recall that the deal was not about dethroning the Iranian regime, but simply preventing it from securing the capacity to build a nuclear weapon.  The President characterized his interactions with Iranians, and the substance of the deal as follows: “‘Given your past behavior, given our strong suspicion and evidence that you made attempts to weaponize your nuclear program, given the destabilizing activities that you’ve engaged in in the region and support for terrorism, it’s not enough for us to trust you when you say that you are only creating a peaceful nuclear program.  You have to prove it to us.’  And so this whole system that we built is not based on trust; it’s based on a verifiable mechanism, whereby every pathway that they have is shut off”.
Republicans do not want to hear this and they do not want to read the text.  They refuse to engage with any of the actual substance of the agreement.  Their primary argument is about not being able to “trust” the Iranians, and they will not deviate from this talking point no matter how much evidence is presented to them.  This is particularly ironic given that they grovel to the memory of a President who sold weapons to Iran (while the U.S. government was selling chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran) in order to fund a gangster government in Central America.
I think it is genuinely tragic that the leadership of the Republican Party has such disinterest in understanding the world, such contempt for history, and frankly, makes such a virtue of ignorance.
Jeb Bush—who echoes what countless other Republican politicians have said—is insulting voters when he invites them to sneer at nuance, at “big syllable words”, at the hard work of diplomacy that, in the form of this deal, has made our country more safe and a war less likely. 
The strategy of promoting ignorance as a virtue stems in part from the weakness of the GOP’s arguments across the board, and their need to depend on inflammatory rhetoric.  But it’s also related to the perception that political candidates need to act like “everyday” citizens, and in the mind of the GOP leadership, that apparently means “stupid”.
[It should also be said that the Republican Party is serially inconsistent on these lines.  Half the time it tells its supporters, “They think you’re stupid!  Run them out of town!”, and the other half it tells them, “You ARE stupid, so you can’t trust these people who use big syllable words!”] 
But think about it.  Why is it so bad to acknowledge that the world is a complicated place, and to act accordingly?  Why should we spurn the conferences and treaties that have, historically, ended wars and made peace?  Why should we want a President who thinks being intelligent and paying attention to details and talking to technical experts is a bad thing?  The occupant of the Oval Office is probably the single most powerful individual in the world, and I know that above all else I want that person to be intelligent, and to seek out the advice of other intelligent people.
In his interview with Friedman, the President showed why an understanding of diplomacy—so casually dismissed by Bush—is important.  Bush assailed the President for continuing negotiations and agreeing to ease off sanctions once the offending elements of Iran’s nuclear program are dismantled and mechanisms for inspection are in place. 
President Obama reminded Friedman that the effectiveness of sanctions depends on the willingness of countries that had traded with Iran (i.e. not the U.S.) to respect them.  “If [those countries] saw us walking away from what technical experts believe is a legitimate mechanism to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon—if they saw that our diplomatic efforts were not sincere, or were trying to encompass not just the nuclear program, but every policy disagreement that we might have with Iran, then frankly, those sanctions would start falling apart”, the President argued.
He concluded with a statement that is worth quoting at some length:
“And then I think the last thing that — this is maybe not something I’ve learned but has been confirmed — even with your enemies, even with your adversaries, I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes, and if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran. We have had in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq, and so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative. It may not be one we agree with. It in no way rationalizes the kinds of sponsorship from terrorism or destabilizing activities that they engage in, but I think that when we are able to see their country and their culture in specific terms, historical terms, as opposed to just applying a broad brush, that’s when you have the possibility at least of some movement.”
To the Republican Party, acknowledging other perspectives, acknowledging other people’s history, is a sign of weakness.  It could lead to those hated “nuances”, to “big words”, to thought, in other words.  They would prefer to view the world through a tiny, star-spangled keyhole, with no knowledge of the past—an approach to international affairs that would leave us, the public, with no hope for the future.

But if we want to improve our relations with people and governments in other parts of the world by means other than self-destructive and futile wars, we desperately need that understanding of perspectives and histories and motives.  We need to be willing to talk to people.  It is how we function in our everyday familial and communal life—constant communication, understanding, interaction, and compromise—as a national society, and it must be how we function as a global community. 

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