I liked former New Republic writer Dana Milbank’s column this morning about how “Republicans mindlessly oppose Iran Nuclear Deal.” I liked it not just because it was witty, but because its prominence in the Washington Post—and its place when I woke up near the top of its list of the most popular stories—suggests that in this latest fracas over foreign policy, the conventional wisdom, as well as public opinion, is on the side of liberal internationalism rather than neo-conservative war-mongering. That this time it is the Bill Kristols and Ari Fleischers and Marco Rubios who are howling at the moon.
That’s especially important because in this case, there is an underlying truth—an emperor without any clothes, an elephant in the room—that no one in the administration or in the Republican opposition wants to openly acknowledge. It goes something like this: We all want Iran to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons, and we hope that through sanctions and negotiations, and the threat of war, we can achieve that result. But we Americans also know that if negotiations fail, then war may not be a real option. As the debate over intervention in Syria showed, the American public is not eager to go to war in the Middle East when the United States itself is not in danger. The Obama administration would have a hell of a time carrying out its threat. And even if it did, it would have a hell of a time achieving its objective of knocking out Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
So the various politicians and pundits who called for upping the sanctions as the interim deal was being negotiated, and who now denounce the deal as being woefully inadequate are doing a particular disservice. On one level, they are calling for war, which is the only alternative if we don’t pursue diplomacy. But on another level—if you consider the political and strategic difficulty, in this case of war—they are calling for a shutdown of our foreign policy—for the kind of national embarrassment and blow to our global standing from which we were saved in Syria by the Russians. So three cheers for Dana Milbank and for the good sense of the American people and the old foreign policy establishment of the Scowcrofts, Albrights, and Brzezinskis.
By: John B. Judis, The New Republic, November 26, 2013
If you want to know how the neoconservatives who brought us the Iraq War are reacting to the interim deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program, the best way is to head over to the website of the Weekly Standard, where you can witness their wailing chagrin that the Obama administration doesn’t share their hunger for yet another Middle East war. All five of the featured articles on the site concern Iran, including editor Bill Kristol’s “No Deal” (illustrated with twinned photos of Bibi Netanyahu and Abraham Lincoln, believe it or not), one titled “Don’t Trust, Can’t Verify,” and “Abject Surrender By the United States” by the always measured John Bolton.
These people would be simply ridiculous if they didn’t already have so much blood on their hands from Iraq, and the idea that anyone would listen to them after what happened a decade ago tells you a lot about how Washington operates. But there is something important to understand in the arguments conservatives are making about Iran. Their essential position is that now that Iran has finally agreed to negotiate, we must “keep the pressure on” by not negotiating until they offer, to use Bolton’s words, an actual abject surrender. We should not just maintain but increase sanctions, to make them understand that they’ll get nothing and like it. The only way to get future concessions from Iran is to maximize their pain now.
You’ll recall how much progress the Bush administration made in getting Iran to pull back its nuclear development with this approach (none). It seems pretty clear that the neocons understand about as much about negotiating as my dog does about delayed gratification. So let me suggest that an easing of sanctions now is exactly what could get them to agree to more concessions at the end of the interim agreement’s period of six months. The reason is that what we’ve done is give the Iranians not only something to gain, but something to lose.
You may be familiar with the theory of loss aversion, which states that we tend to fear losses more than we are eager for gains. The pain of losing ten dollars you have is greater than the pleasure of gaining ten you don’t yet have. According to Daniel Kahneman, who pioneered the theory with his late colleague Amos Tversky, the “loss aversion ratio” in experiments is usually around two to one. For instance, if I offer you a bet in which you’ll lose $100 if you’re wrong, I’ll probably have to offer you $200 if you win in order to induce you to take the bet. Loss aversion has been demonstrated in a large number of experiments in a wide variety of contexts.
But as Bob Dylan said, when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose, which brings us back to Iran. Sanctions have by all accounts had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy. What conservatives would like to offer Iran is continued economic misery, in the hopes that a little more of that will get them to do what we want, i.e. dismantle their nuclear program. But under this new agreement, they’ll get a bit of temporary relief. Money will flow in to their economy, easing some of that misery. It might not be actual prosperity, but things will be better than they are now. The Iranian public will be pleased about the improved economy, likely making the regime feel more politically secure. Then at the end of the agreement’s time frame in six months, the country as a whole and the government in particular will have something to lose. The western powers will be able to say to them: Things are going better for you now. If you don’t take the next step in dismantling the nuclear program, we’ll reimpose the sanctions, and you’ll squander what you’ve gained.
Obviously, there are many other variables at play—the need to save face, the desire to be considered a world power, and so on. But if this agreement gives the Iranians something to lose, it might be just the thing to induce them to give up more later.
Or we could just listen to the neocons and start another war. Because that always works out well.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, November 26, 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
“So What If the Syria Solution Is Messy”: President Obama Got Putin And Syria To The Table, And That’s What Matters
The U.S. came close (we are told, anyway) to bombing Syria in retaliation over the alleged use of chemical weapons in the civil war there. Since then, democracy-challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped in, and is helping to broker a deal by which another bad actor, Syria, would give up its weapons.
That should sound like a pretty good outcome, if it works out. But in Washington, the conversation has been all about image and what has become known in Beltway speak as “messaging.”
President Obama has been criticized for looking weak – first, more than a year ago, for not being tougher on Syria, and now, for vocalizing his understandable reluctance to bomb a Middle Eastern country. He’s been accused of offering mixed messages, by saying the U.S. needed to enforce the “red line” against chemical weapons, but then saying he took no pleasure in doing so. He was criticized for thinking about bombing without consulting Congress, then chided as indecisive for listening to those criticisms and asking for Congress’s opinion (though not its advance approval, Obama was quick to note).
Then Putin wrote a critical op-ed in The New York Times, criticizing the U.S. for its assertion of “exceptionalism,” and saying the rest of the world had grown tired of being pushed around by America.
There is some legitimacy to much of this criticism. But the more important point is, so what?
Who cares if Obama didn’t deliver an unequivocal, we’re-going-to-bomb-them speech, especially if such a speech would lock us more securely into a wartime box? Was it the threat of an attack that got Syrian leader Bashar Assad to talk to Putin? Was it Putin’s desire to gain some level of legitimacy and credibility on the world stage that led him to talk to Assad? Was it Putin’s own concerns about chemical weapons being used by insurgents in his own country that led him to get involved? Who cares?
Being an adult, being a diplomat, and, yes, being a leader means staying focused on the final goal – not on how you got there. So what if Putin wags his finger at the U.S. in an American newspaper? He can bully us on Facebook if he wants. Does it matter, if the end result is Syria giving up chemical weapons without the U.S. having to risk American lives or spend American dollars to make it happen?
Obama had indeed gotten himself into something of a box by drawing a “red line” against chemical weapons (and it should be noted that many of his critics on the right were some of the ones pushing him to get tough on Syria). But Assad was in a box, too. He didn’t want to get bombed. He threatened retaliation if he was bombed – and didn’t really have much to back that up. But politically, he couldn’t be viewed as giving in to Obama or to Secretary of State John Kerry. His only face-saving measure was to deal with someone like Putin – an “imperfect messenger,” to borrow a phrase from Anthony Weiner. But Putin was probably the only person who could deliver it.
Style points do matter, sometimes. But they are not an end in themselves. Looking tough or decisive is not success. Getting rid of the chemical weapons is what will count as a win.
By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, September 20, 2013