How bad is the political news?
First one tried to rationalize, and discount, the Republican victories in the midterms: of course they did not signal a return of the neocons, no way. Indeed none of the new senators campaigned on foreign policy. But that conclusion requires overlooking the fact that Tom Cotton is an unadulterated hawk, one who can’t be derided as a chicken hawk, and he made his foreign policy views clear. And then one has to acknowledge that no Democrats, defeated or victorious, mentioned foreign policy either. If Obama deserved credit for at least seeking a fair settlement in Israel and Palestine and a detente with Iran, Democrats running for office surely didn’t want to campaign on it. Mark Udall, aka Mark Uterus, seems to have run a Senate campaign focused entirely on the fanciful notion that abortion might be once again made illegal.
Was hyping the Michael Brown matter also a Democratic strategy, to boost black turnout? If so, it was a bust—and someone may have noticed that immigrant shopkeepers, and their friends and families, also vote. Perhaps not unrelated to the Michael Brown as victim of racism strategy was the Republicans’ success in recouping roughly a 50 percent share of the Asian vote, which they used to get before the George W. Bush era.
President Obama, I reassured myself, could still ignore the election results and maneuver towards a detente with Iran. Franklin D. Roosevelt after his 1938 midterm election rebuke could serve as a role model. The president has more sway over foreign policy than any domestic matter, and could probably carry the country with him. Instead Obama decided first to pick a fight with Congress over immigration, inviting the mockery of even liberals at Saturday Night Live. If he needs to confront Congress, why choose a matter in which public opinion is well informed, fairly passionate, and not terribly malleable? Whether they favor some sort of amnesty or not, Americans tend to know what they think about immigration. Indeed, talking about the adverse wage consequences for American workers of a mass influx of unskilled immigrants has become a Republican talking point. (As someone who was involved in the immigration restriction movement in the 1990s, then grew somewhat bored with it, I had despaired that the GOP would ever grasp this simple concept of supply and demand.)
By choosing immigration as a battleground, did Obama narrow his maneuvering room in the Iran negotiations? I await publication of further details, but I had assumed—as had most people trying to follow the talks closely—that an agreement on the essentials, such as roughly how many centrifuges Iran might keep and what the schedule of sanctions relief would be, was pretty much in hand. Now from most accounts it appears that the gaps remained wide and that each side was assuming the other would make a significant concession in the final week. I don’t think the details of the agreement are that important, and they would soon have been overshadowed by the transformations which followed Iran’s re-entry into the world economy. But a weakened Obama had perhaps less room to put some distance between the United States and the expressed desires of Israel and Saudi Arabia. (Basically the two countries want Iran to be permanently isolated, if not broken up and destroyed.)
Iran’s negotiators were on a comparatively short leash; there are powerful constituencies there that want no concessions on the nuclear issue whatsoever, and their psychology is not hard to understand if you try to imagine how Americans, or Chinese, or French, or Israelis would feel about international inspectors combing through their top scientific programs. The failure of the negotiations, (and I don’t see any factor which would make them more likely to succeed in the ensuing seven months) will bring other elements into play: military threats from Israel (which were started up again before the negotiators even reached their deadline) and the erosion of the international sanctions regime, already foreshadowed by the barter agreements Iran has signed with China and Russia.
The prospect of war seems distant now, but it did not seem so three or four years ago, and the optimism which has surrounded American-Iranian relations for the last year may soon seem evanescent. Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s two “allies” in the Mideast, will do everything they can to increase antagonism and possibly incite a war between the U.S. and Iran, and the termination of negotiations gives them more room for mischief making than they’ve recently had. The combination of eroding international sanctions, a weakened president, war-mongering allies, and who-knows-what political instability in Iran promises an uncertain and perhaps chaotic diplomatic environment, in which very bad things could happen inadvertently.
Compared to this prospect, the end of Chuck Hagel’s tenure as Secretary of Defense seems a small event. Given the heated battle over his confirmation, few would have predicted that. But in the end, confirmation was the main event: after it Hagel was submissive, seemingly cowed by the ordeal. On the particular policy difference which provoked his ouster, I would side with Obama and his White House staff: Hagel wanted a clear strategy to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the White House seem to realize that Assad is far from the most dangerous element in the Mideast, and very much someone with whom it is possible to negotiate and coexist. But on most issues, Hagel was a non-factor: no one would have anticipated the most salient moment of the entire affair might have been the Saturday Night Live skit (rehearsed but never aired) that mocked the Senate’s subservience to the Israel lobby, but it was.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.