Daniel Larison

The Nuclear Deal and Public Opinion

Fox News has released a poll on Iran that uses wildly misleading questions to get the desired results:

Voters overwhelmingly reject that deal: 84 percent — including 80 percent of Democrats — think it’s a bad idea to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons 10 years from now in return for agreeing it won’t obtain nukes before then.

That would be a lot more interesting and relevant if it had anything to do with the nuclear deal now being negotiated. If there is a final agreement, Iran’s nuclear program would be placed under significant limits, it would be closely monitored, and only after a decade would those limits start to be lifted. Of course, there could always been a future agreement that renews or extends the provisions of such a deal, but there is no question of “allowing” Iran to “get nukes” ten years from now when the deal would end. The NPT would still apply in ten years’ time, there would still be inspections, and Iran still wouldn’t be “allowed” to have nuclear weapons. The wording of the question is ridiculous: “Do you think it’s a good idea or a bad idea to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons 10 years from now in return for it agreeing that it won’t obtain nuclear weapons before then?” The pollster has egregiously misinformed the respondents with this question and framed the issue so incompetently (or dishonestly) that the responses are of no real value.

After all, Iran is still a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the NPT prohibits the development of nuclear weapons. Unless Iran chooses to withdraw from the treaty or decides to violate its terms by building nuclear weapons, Iran isn’t going to “get nukes” then or at any time. I emphasize Iran’s membership in the NPT here because it is a basic piece of information about the nuclear issue, but it is one that most Americans apparently don’t know. According to one recent survey, 65% of Americans say that they hadn’t heard about Iran’s membership in the NPT. That isn’t entirely surprising, since much of the coverage of the nuclear issue has framed it in alarmist and irresponsible ways, but it is striking that the public has apparently been unaware of one of the most important pieces of information about Iran’s nuclear program. Imagine how much more supportive of a diplomatic solution the public might have been over all these years if this simple fact were more widely known.

The purpose of the current deal is to limit significantly Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons over the next decade and to make it much more difficult for Iran to try without alerting the world to what it is doing. Everything about the framing of the Fox News question is wrong (shocking, I know), but it makes it seem as if the public is overwhelmingly against the deal. The result from this garbage question is being touted by hard-liners as proof that Americans don’t accept the deal, but that isn’t true.

Much more accurate questions yield dramatically different results:

Negotiations over a proposed deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program are coming to a head while a new study finds a clear majority of Americans – 61 percent – support an agreement that would limit Iran’s enrichment capacity and impose additional intrusive inspections in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions. This included 61 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents.

The alternative option, being promoted by some members of Congress, calls for ending the current negotiations, and increasing sanctions in an effort to get Iran to stop all uranium enrichment. This approach was recommended by 36 percent.

When the public is presented with an accurate description of a possible diplomatic compromise that limits Iran’s nuclear program, there is broad support for it across party lines. Because hard-liners are dead-set against any deal, they are bound to celebrate any poll, no matter how worthless or misleading its questions, that finds “proof” that the public agrees with them. The reality is that most Americans are in favor of a compromise deal on the nuclear issue, and they don’t share the hard-liners’ rabid hostility to diplomacy with Iran.

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The Scottish Uprising

Alex Massie follows up his warning from last week with a comment on the latest polling from select seats in Scotland:

If the SNP can, as these figures suggest, enjoy a 28 percent swing in their favour in Gordon Brown’s former seat – the safest Labour bastion in Scotland – then, with the exception of Orkney and Shetland, they can win anywhere else. Everywhere else [italics in original]. In 2010, the SNP won just 14 percent of the vote in Kirkcaldy. Now they may win the seat. That’s an insurrection of historic proportions [bold mine-DL].

One might expect that the nationalists would benefit from the new loyalty of pro-independence voters, but the striking thing about the polling in Scotland is that the SNP is also winning over large numbers of ‘No’ voters as well. Some of these voters may be experiencing buyers’ remorse after voting independence down, but that doesn’t seem to be the entire story. There seems to be a widespread repudiation of all the leading parties that is taking place in every part of Scotland regardless of how they voted in the referendum. The SNP has benefited from the surge in pro-independence sentiment at the same time that it remains a useful vehicle to express unionist voters’ hostility to Westminster. After all, how better to convey contempt for the British political class than to vote for the party that wants to separate from them entirely? ‘Yes’ voters that broke with their unionist leaders in September aren’t going to come back support them in May, and even many of the people that backed the union can’t seem to bring themselves to vote for unionist MPs. This understandably alarms unionists for the reasons Massie has given before, but there doesn’t appear to be anything that they can do about it.

Massie concludes:

We’ve not seen anything like this, you know, since Sinn Fein won a landslide in the Irish portion of the 1918 election. And you will remember what happened after that.

There are still two months left before the general election, so it is possible that the results will not be as favorable to the SNP as polls suggest, but if they are it could well be the most significant political earthquake in British politics in a century.

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Summer Internship at TAC

The American Conservative is currently accepting applications for a summer editorial internship position. The deadline for applications is March 13. Here is the description of the position’s responsibilities and the requirements for the application:

Editorial Assistant responsibilities include:

Preparing pieces for the web, writing headlines, curating images

Contributing headlines and story ideas

Proofreading, editing

Conducting research

Managing TAC’s presence on social media platforms

Blogging for the web and writing for the print magazine

Devising strategies for audience development and engagement

Participating in team meetings

Clerical duties, such as answering the phone and handling the mail, are also involved.

All candidates should possess:

Eagerness to work tirelessly in a small but ambitious team

Superb writing and editing ability

Strong communication and organizational skills

Love of considered, lengthy journalism as well as an appreciation of horse-race politics

Excellent news/culture/opinion judgment

A background in intellectual conservatism and keen understanding of The American Conservative’s sensibility.

Interns will join our team in Washington, D.C., from May through August, and will receive a stipend. College students or recent graduates who would like to apply should compose responses to three of the questions or tasks below and send them, along with a résumé, to intern@theamericanconservative.com by March 13. We will review applications on a rolling basis.

Required: Write a short article (500 words) for our website offering a fresh perspective, original analysis, and a clear, evidence-based argument. Alternatively, you are welcome to submit a link to a blog post or article published elsewhere that would have been well-suited for publication in The American Conservative.

Propose three ideas for web articles (1-2 sentences each).

What are the two most interesting media accounts you follow on Twitter and why? (100 words max.)

How could we improve our coverage and analysis on the web? (100 words max.)

How could we improve our fundraising efforts on the web? (100 words max.)

Write two Facebook posts and two tweets about articles or blog posts that appear on our homepage today.

Which two contemporary writers have influenced your thinking the most? (100 words max.)

How would you describe The American Conservative reader? (100 words max.)

We also consider applications submitted through partner organizations including the Collegiate Network and the National Journalism Center. We’ll post more information about our fall 2015 internship in the coming months.

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What Rubio Doesn’t Know

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Robert Merry takes Rubio to task for the confused talking points he used last week at CPAC:

And now we have the spectacle of Rubio demonstrating that in tossing off his speculations on what’s driving President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East, he doesn’t know what he is talking about. He has shown himself to be intellectually callow.

Merry is referring here specifically to the odd argument Rubio used to try to criticize the administration’s handling of the war on ISIS and its negotiations with Iran at the same time, but there are other examples that support what he’s saying. Rubio’s errors aren’t limited to one bungled red-meat attack line delivered to a conference audience. He makes these errors fairly often in many different venues, but there is almost no one on the right interested in drawing attention to them. Rubio is credited with “expertise” on foreign policy issues in large part because he is willing to claim that he has it, and because he can recite hard-line talking points with conviction that is usually more than enough. Whether he is making self-serving claims to avoid responsibility for the consequences of the Libyan intervention that he strongly supported or desperately defending a bankrupt Cuba policy, Rubio’s hawkish instincts keep landing him on the wrong side of important issues. However, because he doesn’t break from the party on foreign policy, his “expertise” is automatically accepted by others in his party despite a record of bad policy judgments. His fellow hawks can’t fault Rubio for his errors without acknowledging their own.

It also helps that he can make false claims before audiences that don’t know any better and get away with it. His repeated insistence on the supposed importance of Shia apocalypticism in understanding Iranian regime behavior is one example of this. To someone who knows little or nothing about Shi’ism or Iran, Rubio’s confident declarations about the regime’s motivations may sound authoritative and compelling, but he is, in fact, spouting nonsense. It doesn’t take much scrutiny to find that Rubio “doesn’t know what he is talking about,” as Merry says, but in order for that discovery to take place someone has to bother to check the senator’s claims.

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Iran Hawks and Arms Control Agreements

Fred Kaplan points out one of the many flaws in Netanyahu’s speech today:

This is a legitimate concern, but consider the following: First, a lot can happen in 10 years. (Take a look back at the most recent three or four 10-year periods.) Second, almost every arms-control accord ever negotiated has an expiration date [bold mine-DL]. Third—and this is key—the horrible things that Netanyahu foresees 10 years down the road, if the deal is signed, might happen—by his own logic, would happen—in the next two or three years if the talks fail.

To understand Kaplan’s second point, one need only think back a few years to the debate over New START. That arms reduction treaty was designed to replace the then-expired START and to continue the reduction of the both states’ strategic arsenals. New START itself was set to expire in ten years’ time. So it is quite normal for such agreements to have expiration dates. That can make it easier to reach an agreement, since none of the interested parties is making a permanent commitment, and it leaves open the possibility of renewing or extending the agreement–or ending it–depending on how well the agreement that has worked up until that point. There is no reason to assume that a nuclear deal with Iran couldn’t be similarly extended or renewed a decade from now. Those that are most alarmed by Iran’s nuclear program ought to be jumping at the chance to limit that program for that length of time, but as usual all that Iran hawks can see is that the deal falls short of their impossible, maximalist standards.

At one point in his speech, Netanyahu made a crack about how the deal currently being negotiated would be a “farewell to arms control,” but the truth is that it is the opponents of the deal that have no use for arms control or the agreements that make it possible.

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Depriving Netanyahu of His Raison D’Être

Paul Pillar comments on Netanyahu’s speech and cites a recent op-ed by Avner Cohen, whom Pillar describes as someone who “probably knows more than anyone outside the Israeli government about the Israeli program and the strategic thinking underlying it.” Cohen wrote:

Despite its flaws, the proposed agreement is far from bad for Israel—the only nuclear power in the Middle East—but it is very bad for Netanyahu. The agreement offers Israel almost a generation, or even more if it succeeds, in which Netanyahu won’t be able to sow fear about Iran as an existential danger. It would leave Netanyahu as a leader whose raison d’être has been taken away from him.

This touches on what seems to be one of the real sticking points for die-hard opponents of the negotiations with Iran. It is not that they fear a “bad deal” that will lead to an undesirable outcome, but rather they fear any deal that deprives them of a ready-made enemy that can be used for fear-mongering and alarmist warnings in the future. Resolving the nuclear issue peacefully is in the interests of all countries involved, but it is not at all useful to hard-liners that thrive on increasing tensions between states. Reducing tensions and reducing a potential threat do not appeal to those that rely on threat inflation to win and retain political influence.

Cohen calls the proposed deal a “reasonable compromise,” and that is another reason why hard-liners are so allergic to it. A compromise necessarily means that all parties to a deal get something from it, and none of them gives up everything. The standard hard-liner position on Iran’s nuclear program for some time has been that Iran has to give up practically everything in its program in exchange for very little. That has always obviously been a non-starter with the Iranians, and so any deal that could be made was always going to leave Iran with more than maximalists in the U.S. and Israel could accept. That’s not an argument against the terms of an achievable deal. It is an indictment of the maximalists’ unreasonable demands and expectations.

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The Disgraceful Spectacle in Congress

There was nothing interesting in the content of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress this morning. One remarkable thing about the event was how shamelessly the prime minister repeated one dishonest or tendentious claim after another. He held up an utterly unrealistic “much better deal” that Iran would never agree to as the only alternative, and he absurdly claimed that the deal currently being negotiated would “pave” the way to an Iranian nuclear weapon. The “much better deal” that he insisted on isn’t remotely possible, and the only reason to insist on it is to try to kill off the best chance of reaching an agreement. Netanyahu nonsensically warned about an unrestricted Iranian nuclear program ten years from now at the same time that he was agitating for the rejection of the only deal that could restrict the program. Needless to say, Netanyahu’s record of false predictions and warnings about Iran’s nuclear program makes him an especially unreliable source of information. The fact that his obnoxious performance was received so warmly in Congress today is not surprising, but it is nonetheless deeply discouraging for anyone interested in peace or foreign policy restraint.

The other remarkable thing was the embarrassing, rapturous response of the assembled members in the audience. Except for extremely rare occasions when an American president has enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings, I cannot recall such a loud, overwrought response from members of a Congress to a visiting speaker. The audience this morning enthusiastically cheered on the sabotage of a major U.S. diplomatic initiative, the undermining of an important U.S. policy goal, and the blatant meddling of a foreign leader in our domestic politics. It is one of the more disgraceful things I’ve seen an assembly of American political leaders do, and that is really saying something.

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The Stunt and the Dysfunctional U.S.-Israel Relationship

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Richard Cohen warns about another “existential threat” to Israel that doesn’t exist:

Iran may or may not be the existential threat to Israel that Netanyahu insists it is. But a lessening of U.S. support for Israel certainly would be [bold mine-DL]. With an indifferent America, Israel would become a lonely, frightening place.

That’s almost certainly not true. If it is true that America doesn’t need Israel, as Cohen acknowledges, it is equally true that Israel doesn’t really need America. Whether it became a “lonely, frightening place” or not would depend for the most part on how it chose to govern itself and how it chose to behave in relation to its neighbors. That is up to Israelis to decide, and none of that has been foreordained. If it didn’t have the U.S. as a patron, Israel would likely be just as secure because of its great conventional and nuclear superiority in the region, but it might just be less intransigent and heavy-handed in its dealings with surrounding peoples because it would know that there would be no superpower guaranteed to bail it out in a jam. (If anyone thinks that decades of U.S. enabling of Israeli behavior have helped to restrain it in any way, I have a bridge to sell you.)

At the very least, less reflexive support from Washington would help to remind the client government that it can’t take U.S. backing for granted, and so it would therefore probably be more careful to cultivate a good relationship with the U.S. That would involve paying more attention to American preferences and not going to such lengths to undermine American policies. That would make for something of a more normal relationship between the two governments.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there is much chance that today’s spectacle will make U.S. support for Israel any less reflexive, nor will it cause future Israeli governments to believe that U.S. backing can’t be taken for granted. All indications are that the administration is making a point of papering over this dispute and doing what it can to keep the damage to a bare minimum. Despite the unprecedented and outrageous behavior from Netanyahu today, the relationship seems likely to remain just as remarkably dysfunctional and lopsided as it has been for decades. That is undesirable for both countries, but then a relationship this unhealthy was never going to be improved so quickly thanks to one leader’s political stunt.

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Walker’s “Existential Threat” Alarmism About the Nuclear Deal

Gage Skidmore / cc

Scott Walker has a dubious plan to repair “ruptured” U.S.-Israel relations:

We must not allow this relationship to deteriorate any further. So what do we do? First, the president and his advisers must treat the prime minister of a longstanding ally with the respect that he deserves and stop playing politics. The second step is for the United States and Israel to work out parameters of a comprehensive nuclear agreement that are acceptable to both sides [bold mine-DL].

Most of Walker’s argument is boilerplate hawkish rhetoric about Iran and Israel, but his proposal here is exceptional in explicitly calling for the U.S. to let Israel set the terms of our diplomacy and treating Israel as if it were a party to the negotiations with Iran. While Israel may have its own interest in the outcome of the talks, it has no role in “working out parameters” of any agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. It would be preferable if Israel’s government welcomed a nuclear deal that imposes significant limits on Iran’s nuclear program, but the U.S. doesn’t need an endorsement from one of its regional clients to pursue its own diplomacy as it sees fit. We already know that Iran wouldn’t agree to any deal that is acceptable to the current Israeli government, so the result of Walker’s suggestion would be to blow up the negotiations, and that is presumably what he would like to see happen.

Earlier in the op-ed, Walker goes into full alarmist mode:

Such a deal presents an existential threat to Israel.

There is no merit to this view. If Iran’s nuclear program poses some future potential threat, it is nonetheless a manageable one. A deal that significantly limits Iran’s program reduces that manageable threat still further. It would be absurd to say that an Iranian nuclear weapon poses an existential threat to Israel, so it is even more ridiculous to say that a nuclear deal that helps to prevent the acquisition of such a weapon poses the same kind of threat.

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Why Walker Keeps Stumbling

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Eliana Johnson comments on Scott Walker’s early stumbles on the national stage:

With everybody eager to be impressed, Walker’s performance nationally, unlike his performance in Wisconsin, is inconsistent.

The “inconsistency” of this performance comes from his lack of preparation on national and international issues. So far, Walker has not done much to remedy that lack of preparation, and donors are beginning to notice this. That would normally be ignored or minimized at this stage in the nomination contest. However, Walker has been built up so quickly (and prematurely) into a “first-tier” candidate that he is being taken far more seriously than another politician with a comparable background would be. He is also coming under much greater scrutiny earlier than usual because his name has already shot to the top of many polls. Normally, a relatively obscure governor from a medium-sized state would struggle to be noticed in the scrum of a nomination contest. Walker is unusual in that he already possesses a national profile that greatly exceeds his readiness to be a candidate at the national level, and for that reason he has been disappointing donors that expect far too much of him.

He is getting the attention and criticism that a front-runner would receive, but he doesn’t yet have the staff or policy briefings that such a candidate would use to cope with these things. Walker’s problem is that he imagines that he is still just testing the waters, but his performance is being judged as if he were already a declared candidate. Other would-be 2016 candidates might say things just as silly as what Walker has said on foreign policy, but he is being judged more harshly by many more people inside the party for his statements because he has been elevated to the top group of candidates despite the fact he hasn’t yet earned his place there.

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