Some of the initial pushback to the Iranian nuclear deal has faded, but for much of the right, the outrage lingers. A few too many conservatives – in Congress, in the media – seriously want Americans to see a good deal as tantamount to Nazi appeasement.
Indeed, for much of the right, the players have been cast in their proper historical roles: Obama is Chamberlain; Iranians are Nazis; and Netanyahu is both Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. (Don’t think about this too much; conservative historical analogies are deeply odd.)
But Peter Beinart raises a good point this morning: the tirades sound rather familiar.
Over the past quarter-century, there’s hardly an American or Israeli leader the Kristol-Netanyahu crowd hasn’t compared to Chamberlain. In 1985, Newt Gingrich called Reagan’s first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.” When Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, hawks took out newspaper ads declaring that “Appeasement is as unwise in 1988 as in 1938.”
Then, when Israel moved to thaw its own cold war with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yitzhak Rabin assumed the Chamberlain role…. Then it was Bill Clinton. “The word that best describes Clinton administration [foreign] policy is appeasement,” explained Robert Kagan and Kristol in 1999. Then, of course, it was the opponents of war with Iraq. “The establishment fights most bitterly and dishonestly when it feels cornered and thinks it’s about to lose. Churchill was attacked more viciously in 1938 and 1939 than earlier in the decade,” wrote Kristol in a 2002 editorial, “The Axis of Appeasement.”
The Munich comparison is offensive on a variety of levels, but Beinart raises an important criticism: those pushing the analogy are also lazy.
For much of the right, there are simple, shorthand responses to almost every question that are intended to end debates in their favor. Can we bring health care security to millions of American families? “No, because it’s socialism.” Can we talk about income inequality and the concentration of wealth at the very top? “No, because it’s class warfare.” Can we talk about expanding investments in education and infrastructure? “No, because it’s big government.”
Can we reduce the nuclear threat – for us and the world – by engaging Iran in constructive diplomacy? “No, because it’s Munich.”
These are knee-jerk responses intended to circumvent thought. But they’ve also become tired and predictable, so much so that when it comes to diplomacy and national security, conservatives keep reading from the same script, making up new Hitlers, new Chamberlains, and new Munichs. The only thing that stays the same is the role of Churchill – a role they hold for themselves.
No one, least of all President Obama, should take the rhetoric seriously, though he can at least take comfort in knowing he’s in good company.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, November 27, 2013
Well, the ayatollah appears to have lent his provisional support to the historic U.S.-Iran accord announced Saturday night. In a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said the deal “can be the basis for further intelligent actions.” Now we just need sign-off from our American ayatollahs. But the early indications are that the Republicans, eager to perform Bibi Netanyahu’s bidding—not that they needed a second reason to oppose something Barack Obama did—will do everything within their power to stop the thing going forward.
We shouldn’t get too carried away in praising this accord just yet. It’s only a six-month arrangement while the longer-term one is worked out. Those talks are going to be harder than these were, and it’s not at all a stretch to envision them collapsing at some point. Iran is going to have to agree to a regular, more-or-less constant inspection regime that would make it awfully hard for Tehran to be undertaking weapons-grade enrichment. It’s easy to see why they agreed to this deal, to buy time and get that $4.2 billion in frozen oil revenues. But whether Iran is going to agree to inspections like that is another question.
Still, it is indeed a historic step. Thirty-four years of not speaking is a long time. So it’s impressive that this got done at all, and even more impressive are some of the inner details, like the fact that Americans and Iranians have been in direct and very secret negotiations for a year. Rouhani’s election does seem to have made a huge positive difference—four of five secret meetings centered in Oman have been held since Rouhani took office, which seems to be a pretty clear indication that he wants a long-term deal to happen.
So this is potentially, I emphasize potentially, a breakthrough that could have numerous positive reverberations in the region—not least among them the virtual elimination of the chance that the United States and Iran would end up at war. And what a refutation of those harrumphing warmongers! I’d love to have had a tap on John Bolton’s phone over the weekend, or Doug Feith’s, or Cheney’s, and heard the combination of perfervid sputtering and haughty head shaking as they lament Obama’s choice.
Well, then, let’s compare choices. They chose war, against a country that never attacked us, had no capability whatsoever to attack us, and had nothing to do with the allegedly precipitating event, 9/11. We fought that war because 9/11 handed the neocons the excuse they needed to dope the public into supporting a unilateral war of hegemony. It has cost us more than $2 trillion now. It’s taken the lives of more than 100,000 people. It has been the author of the trauma of thousands of our soldiers, their limbs left over there, their families sundered. And on the subject of Iran, the war of course did more to strengthen Iran in the region than Obama could dream of doing at his most Machiavellian-Manchurian. Fine, the world is well rid of Saddam Hussein. But these prices were far too steep.
Then along came Obama in 2008, saying he’d negotiate with Iran. I’d love to have a nickel for every time he was called “naive” by John McCain or Sarah Palin (after the differences between Iran and Iraq were explained to her) or any of dozens of others (and yeah, even Hillary Clinton). I’d settle for a penny. I’d still be rich. You might think that watching this past decade unfold, taking an honest measure of where the Bush administration’s hideous decisions have left us, that some of them might allow that maybe negotiation was worth a shot.
Of course that will never happen. Marco Rubio was fast out of the gates Sunday, but he will be joined today by many others. Some will be Democrats, yes, from states with large Jewish votes. Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez have already spoken circumspectly of the deal (although interestingly, Dianne Feinstein, as AIPAC-friendly as they come, spoke strongly in favor of it). There will be a push for new sanctions, and that push will be to some extent bipartisan.
But the difference will be that if the Democrats get the sense that the deal is real and can be had, they won’t do anything to subvert it, whereas for the Republicans, this will all be about what it’s always about with them—the politics of playing to their Obama-hating base. But there’ll be two added motivations besides. There’s the unceasingly short-sighted and tragic view of what constitutes security for Israel, which maintains the conditions of near-catastrophe that keep just enough of the Israeli public fearful of change so that they perpetuate in putting people like Netanyahu in power, thus ensuring that nothing will ever change. And perhaps most important of all in psychic terms to the neocons, there is contemplation of the hideous reality that Obama and the path of negotiation just might work. This is the thing the neocons can’t come to terms with at all. If Obama succeeds here, their entire worldview is discredited. Check that; even more discredited.
Rouhani appears to be moving his right wing a bit. Ours, alas, isn’t nearly so flexible as Iran’s.
By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, November 24, 2013
International agreements last only so long as their signatories support them. Political forces certainly exist here as well as in Iran that oppose the interim agreement that the United States and the five other nations signed with Iran freezing its nuclear program. Agreements like this always contain risks, but in this instance, the rewards are sufficient to justify the risks.
While negotiating a final agreement, the current deal stops Iran from using its nuclear facilities to make bombs. It allows the International Atomic Energy Commission to conduct rigorous daily inspections. Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, says, “The limits on Iran’s nuclear program are, unequivocally, a major success in reining-in Iran’s nuclear potential and an essential stepping stone toward the negotiation of an even more effective, final agreement.”
The agreement also continues a welcome thaw in American relations with Iran. Some hardliners in Congress like to present America as the wounded party in the longstanding quarrel between the two nations, but that is simply not the case. This August, the Central Intelligence Agency finally unclassified documents that revealed its role in the overthrow of Iranian nationalist Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. That act, and America’s continuing support for the Shah’s dictatorship, figured prominently in the minds of the Iranian revolutionaries who held American diplomats hostage in 1979.
Iran subsequently supported terrorist acts against Americans, but Americans backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who in 1980 began an eight-year war with Iran that cost the Iranians a million lives. The Bush administration also branded Iran, which had aided America in Afghanistan, part of the “axis of evil” and supported groups that sought to overthrow its government.
A thaw between the governments could ease conflicts throughout the Middle East and even South Asia. Iran could be of immense help in negotiating an end to the war in Syria. (Syria is Iran’s Vietnam. It has already spent billions backing Basher al-Assad.) The Rouhani government could aid the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. It could help suppress al Qaeda and other Sunni terrorist organizations. It could reduce Saudi Arabia’s sway over world oil prices. And it could remove a real, or imagined, threat to Israel. It’s easily forgotten, but Iran was once Israel’s closest ally in the Middle East. The two nations have an affinity as religious outliers in the Sunni Arab Middle East that could be revived if Israel were to finally recognize the rights of Palestinians.
The main opponents of America reaching an agreement were the Israeli and Saudi governments and organizations and politicians in the United States that are close to the rightwing Netanyahu government in Israel. Netanyahu has compared the agreement to the 1938 Munich agreement that allowed the Nazis to gobble up Central Europe. And Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, who, when he ran in 2010, was the largest recipient of so-called pro-Israel money, compared Obama to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who signed the Munich Agreement. During the last month, Kirk and other Senators pressed for even harsher sanctions on Iran, even though the effect of these would have been to undercut any possibility of an agreement with Iran and leave the United States with no option but war to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In the weeks before the new agreement was signed, some opponents began to back down. On October 29, after meeting with senior administration officials, leaders of AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Jewish Organizations reportedly agreed not to press a new sanctions bill while the administration was negotiating the interim agreement with Iran. And in the immediate aftermath, several important critics appear to have moderated their stance. Kirk, while belittling of the Iran’s concessions in the agreement as “cosmetic,” now threatens to bring forth sanctions legislation only if “Iran undermines this interim accord or if the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not under way by the end of this six-month period.” That even opens the way to a Kirk backed a final agreement.
The Guardian described the Saudis as maintaining a “discreet silence” about the agreement. Only Netanyahu and other members of his administration have continued to denounce the agreement. Netanyahu called the deal an “historic mistake.” “The Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel and Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” Netanyahu said. “As Prime Minister of Israel, I would like to make it clear: Israel will not allow Iran to develop a military nuclear capability.”
Netanyahu’s statement was uncompromising – even setting as a trigger Iran developing a “capability” and not an actual weapon. It also hyped an “existential” Iranian threat that, if it ever existed, only did so during the term of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and then only in Ahmadinejad’s fevered rhetoric, which was meant for domestic consumption. The rhetoric, and so, too, is Iran as a major backer of Hamas. But it is unclear whether Netanyahu is really laying the basis for an Israeli military strike, or simply currying favor with Israeli voters. Israel does not appear to have the military ability to knock out Iran’s nuclear program, although it could certainly reap havoc and start another regional war.
Netanyahu and some American critics of the deal with Iran have compared it to the American agreement with North Korea in 2005, in which North Korea promised to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for economic aid. North Korea subsequently violated the agreement. But a more optimistic comparison would be to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement that Ronald Reagan signed with the Soviets in 1987.
Conservatives denounced Reagan for the pact. National Review called it “Reagan’s suicide pact.” Henry Kissinger charged that it undermined “40 years of NATO.” But, of course, the treaty turned out to be a prelude not only to more comprehensive arms agreements, but to the end of the Cold War. If the United States is lucky – and luck is always a factor in international affairs – the modest deal that the United States and five other nations signed with Iran could like, the Reagan’s INF treaty, be the beginning of something much larger, more important, and more welcome.
By: John B. Judis, The New Republic, November 24, 2013
When the ancient Greek or Roman playwrights had painted themselves into a corner, plot-wise, they sometimes resorted to the dramatic device known as the deus ex machina, in which one of the gods was hoisted over the stage and dropped in to resolve the otherwise inchoate drama.
Something similar happened this week with Syria. The drama had progressed into a mix of international tragedy and domestic political bathos. President Obama’s threat of military action against Syria was right in principle but garnered no real political support — not least because Obama and his generals agree there is no military solution in Syria.
Cue the gods (in Moscow!): The stage directions may have been confusing, starting with a throwaway line from Secretary of State John Kerry, followed up quickly by his Russian counterpart. Then suddenly the stage was crowded with a cheering chorus that included U.S., French and Russian presidents, the U.N. secretary general, the Chinese and even Iranians.
Anyone who thinks this was simply a theatrical accident should go back to drama school. Obama, Kerry and the Russians have been talking about control of Syrian chemical weapons for many months, most recently a week ago at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia. Let it be said that the mercurial Vladimir Putin (whom Obama regards as the most transactional leader in the world) knows how to propose an 11th-hour deal.
The deus ex machina has been cranked into place, but that doesn’t mean the Syria play is over. The complicated diplomatic part is just beginning. I hope Obama and his allies will keep in mind some basic principles, so that we don’t quickly return to another Syria breakdown:
● Obama’s tough line paid off. The Russians endorsed international control of Syria’s chemical weapons only after Obama threatened to attack and didn’t flinch in St. Petersburg or on Capitol Hill. He may be a weakened president in foreign affairs, but this show of strength regained him some precious credibility. As a Syrian rebel leader told me by phone Monday night, “Never go with carrots only.”
● The U.N. Security Council now moves to center stage. The right framework is the resolution France was drafting Tuesday, with U.S. help. It would require Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control for supervised demolition. Syria could face military reprisals if it violates this resolution, which the French are proposing under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes force. Finally, the resolution would call for punishment of those responsible for the Aug. 21 chemical attack. The Russians want to soften this language.
● The next step is revival of peace talks in Geneva, where elements of the regime and the opposition can negotiate a cease-fire and transition plan. The United States and Russia, as co-sponsors of these talks, should begin thinking now about how to prevent a chaotic vacuum and sectarian revenge-killing when a political transition begins. The lessons of Iraq and Libya are clear: Reconcilable elements of the Syrian army and state institutions must remain intact so they help the rebuilding.
● President Bashar al-Assad must go. The Russians know this; they’ve repeatedly said so privately to U.S. officials. Now they need to make it happen. U.N. inspectors have gathered evidence that Syrian civilians were killed by sarin nerve gas on Aug. 21; this action could have been done only by the regime. It would be politically dangerous, as well as immoral, to allow Assad to remain in power once these findings are disclosed.
● The United States should step up its training and supply of moderate Syrian rebels — less to topple Assad than to provide a counterweight to jihadists in the opposition and help stabilize a future Syria. The first CIA-trained commandos are now heading into the field, in units of 30 or 40. Step up that flow!
● Iran should prove that it deserves a seat at the Geneva table. It can’t be part of the Syria solution unless it changes its destabilizing policies — not just in backing Assad but also in its nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah and other actions. A new Iranian president and foreign minister will be in New York in two weeks. The Iranians and the Obama administration should think big about a new security framework for the region.
● Given the United States’ profound reluctance to fight another war in the Middle East, Israel knows it will have to take responsibility for its own security, including any military action against Iran. The good news is that Israeli power is robust and credible. Both Assad and the Iranians seem to be deterred from reckless action, and the Russians (in secret) are cooperative. Credible threats of force prevent wars.
By: David Ignatius, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 10, 2013
The United States has just spent thousands of American lives in a distant land for a victory that now seems hollow, if indeed it can be called a victory at all. Our own country, moreover, is emerging from a recession, dispirited and self-absorbed, worried about the fragility of the recovery and the state of our democracy. Idealism is in short supply. So, as another far-off war worsens, Americans are loath to take sides, even against a merciless dictator, even to the extent of sending weapons. The voices opposed to getting involved range from the pacifist left to the populist right. The president, fearful that foreign conflict will undermine his domestic agenda, vacillates.
This is the United States in 1940. Sound a little familiar?
I’ve been reading two engrossing new histories of that time — “Those Angry Days” by Lynne Olson and “1940” by Susan Dunn — both focused on the ferocious and now largely forgotten resistance Franklin D. Roosevelt had to navigate in order to stand with our allies against Hitler.
Of course, 2013 is not 1940. The Middle East is not Europe. President Obama is not F.D.R. But America is again in a deep isolationist mood. As a wary Congress returns from its summer recess to debate Syria, as President Obama prepares to address the nation, it is instructive to throw the two periods up on the screen and examine them for lessons. How does a president sell foreign engagement to a public that wants none of it?
The cliché of the season is that Americans are war-weary from our long slogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is true, but not the whole story. To be sure, nothing has done more to discredit an activist foreign policy than the blind missionary arrogance of the Bush administration. But the isolationist temper is not just about the legacy of Iraq. Economic troubles and political dysfunction have contributed to a loss of confidence. Add to the mix a surge of xenophobia, with its calls for higher fences and big-brotherly attention to the danger within. (These anxieties also helped give rise to the expanding surveillance state, just as nativism in that earlier period gave license to J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive eavesdropping.)
Isolationism is strong in the Tea Party, where mistrust of executive power is profound and where being able to see Russia from your front yard counts as mastery of international affairs. But sophisticated readers of The New York Times are not immune, or so it seems from the comments that arrive when I write in defense of a more assertive foreign policy. (In recent columns I’ve advocated calibrated intervention to shift the balance in Syria’s civil war and using foreign aid to encourage democracy in Egypt.) Not our problems, many readers tell me.
Isolationism is not just an aversion to war, which is an altogether healthy instinct. It is a broader reluctance to engage, to assert responsibility, to commit. Isolationism tends to be pessimistic (we will get it wrong, we will make it worse) and amoral (it is none of our business unless it threatens us directly) and inward-looking (foreign aid is a waste of money better spent at home).
“We are not the world’s policeman, nor its judge and jury,” proclaimed Representative Alan Grayson, a progressive Florida Democrat, reciting favorite isolationist excuses for doing nothing. “Our own needs in America are great, and they come first.”
At the margins, at least, isolationists suspect that our foreign policy is being manipulated by outside forces. In 1940, as Olson’s book documents, anti-interventionists deplored the cunning British “plutocrats” and “imperialists,” who had lured us into the blood bath of World War I and now wanted to goad us into another one. In 2013, it is supposedly the Israelis duping us into fighting their battles.
Many pro-Israel and Jewish groups last week endorsed an attack on Syria, but only after agonizing about a likely backlash. And, sure enough, the first comment posted on The Washington Post version of this story was, “So how many Americans will die for Israel this time around?” This is tame stuff compared with 1940, when isolationism was shot through with shockingly overt anti-Semitism, not least in the rhetoric of the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Both Lynne Olson and Susan Dunn, in interviews, were wary of pushing the analogy too far. The Middle East, they point out, is far murkier, far less familiar.
“In 1940 everything was black and white — there was no gray,” Dunn told me. “On one side, Adolf Hitler and ruthless, barbaric warfare; on the other side, democracy, humanism, morality and world civilization itself.” Yes, at least so it seems in hindsight, but the choice was not so clear in 1940. Both books offer copious examples of serious, thoughtful people who had real doubts about whether Hitler was a threat worth fighting: cabinet members and generals, newspaper publishers and business leaders. At Yale, Dunn reports, an antiwar student movement that included such future luminaries as Gerald Ford, Potter Stewart and Sargent Shriver drafted a petition demanding “that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat.”
Olson told me she was startled to hear Secretary of State John Kerry inveighing against “armchair isolationism” last week in his testimony on Syria. “I think to be skeptical now does not mean you’re an isolationist,” said Olson, who is herself skeptical about taking sides in Syria. “It’s become a dirty word.”
Fair enough. But can we dial down the fears and defeatist slogans of knee-jerk isolationism and conduct a serious discussion of our interests and our alternatives in Syria and the tumultuous region around it?
The event that ultimately swept the earlier isolationists off the board was, of course, Pearl Harbor. But even before the Japanese attack the public reluctance was gradually giving way, allowing the delivery of destroyers to the British, the Lend-Lease program, a precautionary weapons buildup and the beginning of military conscription.
One factor that moved public opinion toward intervention was the brazenness of Hitler’s menace; Americans who had never given a thought to the Sudetenland were stunned to see Nazis parading into Paris.
Another was a robust debate across the country that ultimately transcended partisanship and prejudice.
Most historians and popular memory credit Roosevelt’s leadership for the country’s change of heart, but Olson points out that for much of that period Roosevelt was — to borrow a contemporary phrase — leading from behind. He campaigned in 1936 on a pledge to “shun political commitments which might entangle us in foreign wars” and to seek to “isolate ourselves completely from war.” It was a vow he renewed repeatedly as Hitler conquered country after country: there would be no American boots on the ground.
Olson argues that while Roosevelt resolved early to send aid to Britain, it is not at all clear that he would have taken America into the war if it had not been forced upon him by Pearl Harbor. But by December 1941, she writes, “the American people had been thoroughly educated about the pros and cons of their country’s entry into the conflict and were far less opposed to the idea of going to war than conventional wisdom has it.”
“Obviously we got into it because of Pearl Harbor, but that debate made a crucial difference,” Olson told me. “And I think that is what’s called for now.”
Congress in recent years has not won much respect as an arena of policy debate, but it was heartening last week to hear leaders of both parties moving a little beyond petty obstructionism and bitter partisanship and inviting a serious discussion.
I hope that Congress can elicit from the president this week a clear and candid statement of America’s vital interests in Syria, and a strategy that looks beyond the moment. I hope the president can persuade Congress that the U.S. still has an important role to play in the world, and that sometimes you have to put some spine in your diplomacy. And I hope Americans will listen with an open mind.
By: Bill Keller, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 8, 2013