Daniel Larison

Will’s Unpersuasive Case Against the Nuclear Deal

State Department/Sipa USA/Newscom

George Will makes a wholly unpersuasive case against the nuclear deal. This was probably the weakest part of his argument:

The best reason for rejecting the agreement is to rebuke Obama’s long record of aggressive disdain for Congress — recess appointments when the Senate was not in recess, rewriting and circumventing statutes, etc.

This isn’t the “best reason” to reject the deal. It’s not even a good reason. If one wants to rebuke Obama for ignoring and going around Congress in other situations, it would make sense to rebuke him directly on those. Obama has been waging an illegal war against ISIS for almost a year now, but Congress seems quite content to allow Obama’s disdain for their role to continue indefinitely. It is only when he is proposing to strike a nonproliferation deal that they are suddenly concerned to take an interest. Congress has desperately sought to meddle in diplomacy in which it has no proper role. This is one case where Obama’s treatment of Congress has been defensible and appropriate. If this is the “best reason” for rejecting the deal, it’s a safe bet that there aren’t any good reasons.

Later on, Will asserts that the “Iran agreement should be a treaty.” There’s no particular reason why it should be treaty, except perhaps that it would make it easier to kill the agreement. He then compares it to the Treaty of Versailles, with which it has nothing in common, and regrets that Obama did not imitate Wilson by embarking on a fool’s errand of trying to get a hostile Senate to ratify something it hates. Wilson ended his presidency in failure and practically killed himself stumping for a treaty that was never going to be ratified, and then Will wonders why Obama didn’t want to follow his example.

Will also says that the deal “should not have been submitted first to the United Nations as a studied insult to Congress,” but that doesn’t make much sense. For one thing, previous presidents have gone to the Security Council regarding possible military action before going to Congress, so unless Will thinks those were “studied insults” to Congress his objection doesn’t hold up at all. Besides, why wouldn’t an agreement negotiated between the permanent members of the Security Council and a member state be submitted to the Security Council first? Will wants to treat this as if it were a bilateral agreement with Iran, but that is exactly what it isn’t.

It is somewhat encouraging that the arguments against the deal are consistently so weak and unpersuasive. That reflects the bankruptcy of the opponents’ position. But it is also dismaying that so many people on the right are only too willing to repeat and endorse such incredibly weak arguments.

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Iran Hawks and Preventive War

Norman Podhoretz makes a number of risible claims in his recent op-ed on the Iran deal. This was the most preposterous:

For in allowing Iran to get the bomb, he is not averting war. What he is doing is setting the stage for a nuclear war between Iran and Israel.

None of this is true. Iran isn’t being “allowed” to get a nuclear weapon. Even when all the additional restrictions imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are lifted, Iran will still be a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and will still be bound by its commitments under that treaty not to build nuclear weapons. Even if Iran opted to pull out of the treaty and build a few nuclear weapons at some point in the future, that would not lead to a nuclear war with Israel. No Iranian government would be insane enough to start a war that would certainly result in the destruction of their country. The idea that there would ever be an Iranian government that would be willing to do this is one of the most distorting and persistent lies in the Iran debate.

The other lie that Podhoretz promotes in his op-ed is the idea that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It would at most briefly delay Iran’s ability to build such weapons while making it much more likely that their government would decide to do so. Preventive war against Iran is a reckless, indefensible, and illegal option, and on top of all that it would fail to “prevent” the very thing it was being waged to stop, so naturally Iran hawks think it is an appropriate policy. The conceit that Iran hawks don’t want war with Iran is an empty one, as their repeated arguments in favor of preventive war against Iran make clear.

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Rubio’s Costly, Confrontational Anti-Iranian Policy

Judith E. Bell / Flickr

Marco Rubio wants to remind us just how reckless and aggressive he would be if he were president:

The U.S. should undertake a systematic effort to isolate Iran in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic, its clients and proxies, should find no sanctuary in the region. The U.S. must do all it can [bold mine-DL] to counter Iran’s nefarious plots in places like Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, Syria or Yemen.

It is striking that Rubio’s vision of an aggressive and ambitious U.S. policy in the region never really touches on how any of this serves American interests. He says that the U.S. “must” counter Iran everywhere that it has influence (and even in Yemen, where it has very little), and should not allow Iran to have any “sanctuary.” That would seem to imply that his agenda extends into Iran as well. There is no attempt to weigh the costs of this extremely confrontational policy, and likewise no attempt to identify benefits that the U.S. is supposed to get from all this frenetic anti-Iranian activity. If the U.S. must “do all it can” to counter Iran, that suggests that Rubio favors an escalation of U.S. involvement in multiple conflicts. We already know he thinks the U.S. hasn’t done enough to back the Saudis in Yemen, and he has long favored a more interventionist policy in Syria, and it’s anyone’s guess how many more unnecessary conflicts he would be prepared to have the U.S. join in the name of “countering” Iran.

U.S. interests are an afterthought for Rubio in this argument, and it’s no surprise. If he had to demonstrate some connection between this aggressive foreign policy agenda and keeping the U.S. secure, he wouldn’t be able to do it, because it doesn’t exist. Neglecting U.S. interests is what an “indispensable leadership role in the world” seems to require, and maintaining that role is the only justification that Rubio needs. The good news is that Rubio’s consistent identification of “indispensable leadership” with constant war and confrontation should help drive most Americans to oppose this role for the U.S. in the world.

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Iran Hawks and the Loathing of Diplomacy

State Department/Sipa USA/Newscom

This quote about the deal with Iran from a Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee was quite revealing:

“You can’t do a good deal with a bad guy,” said David Trott, a Republican representative from Michigan.

That’s a ridiculous thing to say, but it sums up very well the main objection that many Iran hawks have to any deal with Iran: they are offended by the fact that it has been negotiated with the Iranian government. Like Rep. Trott, they take it as a given that there can be no “good” deal negotiated with this government on the weird, ahistorical assumption that “you can’t go a good deal with a bad guy.” Not only do we know that it is possible to do a “good deal” with such governments (i.e., a deal that advances our policy goals at an acceptable cost), but it is the hostility of these regimes that makes striking deals on contentious issues even more important. It is taken for granted that Iran’s nuclear program is treated differently in part because of the kind of regime that exists in Iran. That is why securing a deal that limits their nuclear program is that much more desirable than the alternative.

Another member of the committee, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, seemed to think he was making a very incisive point when he said this:

“If the ayatollah doesn’t like it and doesn’t want to negotiate it, oh, boohoo,” the Republican said. “We’re here for America. We stand for America. You represent America.”

It’s hard to describe this as anything more than mindless posturing. Yes, our government is supposed to represent the U.S. and its interests, which is presumably what our diplomats spent the last two years doing. They managed to secure an agreement that achieves most of the things that the deal’s critics claim to want. They could not produce an agreement that forced Iran to give up everything because Iran’s negotiators likewise represent their side and similarly don’t want to be humiliated. If these members of Congress had their way, the U.S. would have walked away without any of the gains from this deal and would have left Iran’s nuclear program under far fewer constraints than it is now. That is why they think constitutes being “tough” on Iran. It’s just further confirmation that Iran hawks have all the wrong answers on how to deal with Iran.

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No, Kerry Isn’t “Saying Too Much” About the Nuclear Deal

William Saletan complains that Kerry talks too much about the Iran deal and creates unnecessary confusion. This was his first example:

Kerry also told the Senate:

The supreme leader’s quote is in this document that Iran will never go after a nuclear weapon. And the Iranians happily put that in. … He believes he stopped them because he issued a fatwa, and he has declared the policy of their country is not to do it. So he is, as a matter of sovereignty and pride, making a true statement. He doesn’t believe the Americans stopped them. He said they didn’t want to get one in the first place.

If Kerry really believes that, then he traded away sanctions for a concession that had already been made.

I don’t know what Kerry “really” believes about this, but I assume the reason that Kerry said this was to give an answer to a rather silly question. Kerry was asked whether the deal would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and then he was pressed a little later on Khamenei’s statement that Iran had not been “stopped” by the Americans from building one. Kerry gave this answer to explain why Khamenei’s statement didn’t discredit the deal, and to make sense for the committee of what Khamenei had said. It doesn’t mean that Kerry necessarily believes what Khamenei said. He was swatting down yet another dumb objection to the agreement. This isn’t proof that Kerry is “saying too much.” It is proof that many of the deal’s critics at the Foreign Relations Committee hearing were asking useless questions. Saletan wants to blame Kerry for defending the deal against confused and ill-informed challenges, but the critics are the ones responsible for that.

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Wieseltier’s Silly Argument Against the Iran Deal

Surprising no one, Leon Wieseltier doesn’t like the deal with Iran:

This agreement was designed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. If it does not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons—and it seems uncontroversial to suggest that it does not guarantee such an outcome [bold mine-DL]—then it does not solve the problem that it was designed to solve. And if it does not solve the problem that it was designed to solve, then it is itself not an alternative, is it?

As objections to this deal go, this must be one of the most fatuous that a critic has made so far. James Fallows noted in response to this that there is no agreement that can provide absolute guarantees about this. Indeed, that is the point of having verification measures so that there is a way to confirm that the restrictions that Iran has accepted are being followed. It is in the nature of any negotiated settlement that an agreement holds so long as all parties continue to see compliance as being more to their advantage, so it is always possible that the agreement could fail in its purpose if one or more of the parties decides not to abide by its terms. That is obvious enough, but it is a completely useless criticism to make.

The deal with Iran makes it much more difficult for Iran to acquire the ability to build nuclear weapons, and it makes it much easier for the major powers to learn of it if they try to evade the limits that the deal requires. These are extraordinary restrictions that go beyond what the NPT already requires of Iran, and assuming that these restrictions are not grossly violated they will succeed in keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon for at least fifteen years and probably much longer than that. It doesn’t mean that that the deal has only delayed Iran’s inevitable possession of nuclear weapons. It has made sure that the unlikely development of an Iranian bomb is now much more unlikely than it was just two years ago. There are no guarantees, but there is now a greatly reduced chance of this outcome than there was before the negotiations started.

The core of Wieseltier’s objection is the same fantasy that Iran hawks have been pushing for years, namely the elimination of Iran’s nuclear program in its entirety. He laments that the deal is only “a deferral and a delay,” but that is far more than failed hard-line policies have managed to achieve in more than a decade. The new restrictions are as much as the P5+1 were ever likely to get through negotiations, and it is worth emphasizing that critics of diplomacy with Iran were against making the minimal concessions needed to secure even these restrictions. The hawks insist on an impossible goal and then condemn the significant progress that was achieved through compromise. They do this because they are allergic to making deals with this regime, or because they loathe diplomacy and the compromise it requires, or because they would rather keep the nuclear issue alive to stoke tensions with Iran.

Hawks often like to portray Iran as “hell-bent” on acquiring nuclear weapons, and they have been convinced for decades that Iran is just a year or two away from building them, and yet Iran has not done so in all this time. It seems likely that future Iranian governments would want to refrain from crossing that line once the deal’s provisions expire. They will probably calculate that crossing that line will still be too costly. Critics of the deal also assume that the Iranian leadership decades from now will be eager to make their country an international pariah again after enjoying years of improved trade and better relations with other countries, but they would have strong incentives not to cause a dispute on this issue. Provided that the U.S. and its allies and clients don’t give Iran’s governments new incentives to pursue their own deterrent, the problem can continue to be successfully managed.

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The Ongoing Starvation of Yemen

Lara Jakes reports on the continuing deterioration of conditions in Yemen:

An estimated 25,000 additional Yemeni civilians each day are being pushed toward starvation [bold mine-DL] as fighting continues in the nation’s civil war and an ongoing Saudi Arabia blockade limits food, water, fuel and other aid from entering the country, Oxfam International concluded in a new report Monday.

It bears repeating that much of Yemen’s current suffering owes to the Saudi-led intervention and blockade of the country, and the U.S. has backed both for the last four months. Thanks to the blockade, the civilian population is being deprived of essential food, medicine, and fuel. As I mentioned last week, Yemen is also suffering from serious water shortages and the related outbreak of disease because of a lack of fuel and damage to the country’s infrastructure. Yemen already had serious problems with food insecurity and inadequate water supply before the war, but the intervention has made all of the country’s many problems so much worse.

The civilian population faced great difficulties before the blockade, but they are now under extraordinary, cruel pressures because of the Saudis’ outside interference in a local conflict. The Saudis and their allies are starving the country to death with the support of our government, and Yemen will soon be the latest to suffer from a man-made and entirely avoidable famine unless the blockade is lifted. The fighting has already claimed thousands of lives, many of them civilians, and the ensuing ravages of famine and pestilence will claim many thousands more if these conditions are allowed to worsen any more. The war on Yemen becomes more of a disaster for the people of Yemen every day, and the U.S. continues to back it with almost no scrutiny here at home.

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The GOP and the Nuclear Deal

Robert Merry warns the GOP against its lockstep opposition to the nuclear deal:

If it survives over nearly unanimous GOP objections, as appears likely, it will be a net negative for Republicans, perhaps even a big one.

I agree with Merry that rejecting the deal will be a liability for the GOP, and its impact will probably be most noticeable in the presidential election. The party’s general hostility to a major diplomatic success will make foreign policy issues more of a problem for the eventual Republican nominee. I assume rejecting the deal will make it very easy for the other campaign to portray both the nominee and GOP members of Congress as dangerous and reckless, and depending on who the nominee is that task could become even easier. There are many Republican voters that favor the deal (between 25% and 40% depending on the survey), so they will almost certainly be left cold by a foreign policy agenda centered around the party’s opposition to the deal and to diplomatic engagement more generally. Considering how fanatical some of the critics’ statements against the deal are, opponents of the deal are probably alarming and driving away voters that might otherwise be willing to consider supporting a Republican for president.

Most surveys show majority support for the agreement, and more Americans want Congress to allow the deal to proceed than want them to block it. The GOP is on the wrong side of public opinion on the deal itself and their desired tactic of trying to kill the deal in Congress is also unpopular. YouGov’s survey from last week shows the partisan split on the latter question:

The remarkable thing here is how low opposition to the deal is among Republican voters. There is almost no other issue on which party leaders and pundits are so united, but barely half of Republicans nationally are following their lead.  GOP presidential candidates and members of Congress are catering to hard-liners and donors in their party with their opposition, but their hard-line positions have the backing of barely half of their own partisans. Public support for the deal is likely to grow as it starts to be implemented successfully, and that will likely leave Republicans in a predicament on foreign policy entirely of their own making this time next year.

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Huckabee’s Nuclear Deal Derangement

Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

Mike Huckabee has demonstrated that the derangement of nuclear deal critics knows no bounds. This is what he said about it over the weekend:

It is so naive that [Barack Obama] would trust the Iranians. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.

Huckabee’s statement has rightly been condemned as disgusting and offensive, but a few more things should be said about it. Invoking the Holocaust in this cheap, point-scoring way in order to drum up political support is appalling in itself, but that is not all that Huckabee is doing here. Huckabee is accusing the administration and supporters of the nuclear deal of abetting a future genocide. That should have no place in this or any other policy debate, and Huckabee disgraces and discredits himself by making such an accusation.

Huckabee’s claim is ridiculous with respect to the substance of the deal, and it ought to be out of bounds in any sane policy debate. It is also the sort of shameless tactic that other hawks have used in previous foreign policy debates to defame their opponents. In the months before the Iraq war, it was commonplace for hawks to accuse opponents of the invasion of being “pro-dictator” or otherwise supportive of Hussein. Huckabee’s charge is serving much the same role in the Iran debate in that he wants to identify support for the deal as an endorsement of mass murder. It’s a crazy accusation, but it is one designed to stoke fear and confusion about the deal with Iran. Like those other attacks, Huckabee’s statement is dishonest and false, but he is trying to horrify people so that they have a distorted view of the entire debate.

Perhaps the most absurd thing about Huckabee’s argument is that it denies Israel’s very real military strength, ignores its reason for being, and pretends that the state is powerless when it is anything but that. This is supposedly a “pro-Israel” position that he is taking. Israel isn’t a party to the agreement, its citizens are in no way being put in danger because of the deal, and their government possesses conventional military superiority over its neighbors and has a substantial nuclear arsenal that makes a mockery of the fear-mongering scenario Huckabee is conjuring. The real trouble for nuclear deal critics is that Huckabee is simply making the explicit version of the deranged argument that many critics of the deal have been trying to imply about diplomacy with Iran all along.

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Iran Hawks and the Persistent “Martyr-State” Lie

Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

Rick Santorum speaks for many Iran hawks when he made this delusional statement last week:

Iran with a nuclear weapon, in my opinion, is the end….I have no doubt that Iran will use a nuclear weapon in any way possible to destroy the United States, to destroy Europe, to destroy Israel or any other country that is in their way. They don’t care about dying.

This is a lunatic thing to say about any nation, and it is a measure of how warped and biased our Iran debate is that presidential candidates can make assertions like this about another nation without causing an uproar. No government exists or has ever existed that didn’t “care” whether it was destroyed or not, and no people has ever been indifferent to its own annihilation. To believe this ridiculous claim, one has to view Iranians as something less than fully human. The idea that Iran’s government is a suicidal “martyr-state” is entirely unfounded. Indeed, it is nothing more than a lie, but it is one that hard-line fanatics including Santorum spread to sow distrust and fear in order to make the public more receptive to their aggressive policies. It is regrettable to say the least that Santorum is more likely to benefit politically by making these nonsensical and irresponsible statements than he is likely to be discredited by them.

The even more unhinged part of this is Santorum’s fervent belief that a regime that doesn’t possess nuclear weapons, hasn’t been seeking them, has just recommitted not to pursue them, and has accepted restrictions that prevent it from building them will ever have the ability to “destroy” any other country, much less the entire Western world. It is unlikely that Iran will ever actually build a nuclear weapon, and it just became more unlikely thanks to the deal that Santorum opposes. It is absurd to think that their government would use such weapons to launch an attack that would result in their annihilation. Voters should understand that candidates that promote the “martyr-state” myth are seeking to deceive them, and journalists should be holding these candidates accountable for these falsehoods.

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