In his address before the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night, former Florida Congressman Robert Wexler mounted a rollicking, bombastic defense of Israel, affirming America’s “unflinching commitment” to that nation’s security. “The speech I delivered was not a typical convention speech,” he told me, reflecting. “It was actually a significantly substantive speech, in terms of foreign policy about a particular country. To my knowledge, it was the first time that a speech of that nature has been made at either a Democratic or Republican convention outlining an Administration’s policy about Israel.”
Since leaving elected office in 2010, Wexler has been president of a Washington, D.C. think tank, the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. Why, I asked, did he feel that Israel deserved a speech dedicated exclusively to it at the Democratic National Convention?
“Because they’re our closest ally in the Middle East.”
“What about Iraq?” I responded. (You know, the country America invaded in 2003, which Wexler voted to authorize?)
“Iraq is not America’s closest ally in the Middle East,” he said. “Hopefully they will become a very strong democracy who aligns themselves with America.”
His speech touted “the most crippling sanctions in history” imposed on Iran under the Obama administration. This was language Wexler’s fellow Democrats were eager to defend.
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson told me, “stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons is a vital American national security interest. And the crippling international sanctions that — ”
“Is the word ‘crippling’ appropriate?” I asked.
“I think so, yes,” Richardson responded. “When it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapon program, yes.”
Yet the problem is, as we know from a decade of sanctions against Iraq, such measures can’t “cripple” weapons programs without also maiming the civilian economy. Democratic administrations have defended such policies before, however–most famously when “60 Minutes” asked Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” She replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”
And now Iran. “They deserve crippling sanctions,” Richardson continued. “We don’t want to go to war, we don’t want military action. But crippling sanctions? Yeah. On the regime.”
“Will sanctions merely foster resentment among the Iranian populace and effectively embolden the regime?” I asked, calling it “the Ron Paul argument.”
“No, I don’t buy that argument,” Richardson said. “That’s the wrong argument. I think that sanctions are a good tool. They are supported by the international community, by Europe. And it’s the right way to go.”
So they won’t foster resentment? “No,” he stated. “No, no.”
“You know, I didn’t hear Bob Wexler,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who missed the speech. “But Bob is a very good friend of mine. And I’m sure that what he said–he’s tough, he’s straightforward.”
“We need to have sanctions that work,” he said, responding to a question about the word “crippling.” “A nuclear-armed Iran is not an acceptable risk for the United States or for the region.”
Sen. Ron Wyden missed the speech as well, but he suggested that ‘crippling’ might not be the best diplomatic language.
“I don’t know what his context was,” he said. “I prefer the word ‘compelling’–or ‘strong.’”
He doubted that the sanctions could embolden the Iranian regime or work against American interests.
“Sanctions are well-accepted policy to dictate pressure on behalf of a policy which is really in the interest of the Iranian people. They do not have the opportunity to freely elect their government. So, pressure really needs to be exerted so that we can avoid more severe and perhaps catastrophic results of the use of military force.”
I asked whether it might behoove him or any other elected official to attempt to understand the position of the average Iranian citizen.
“Well, if we had that kind of supernatural power, to put ourselves in the head of the Iranian People, but you know, in the long run, the world is united, that Iranian nuclear armaments are unacceptable,” Wyden responded. “And if we can deter it with peaceful means–sanctions are only one of those means–all the better.
“Sanctions on Iraq caused quite a bit of suffering, perhaps even set the circumstances for war. Why is this different?”
“Different country, different circumstances, different time, different decade, different danger.”
In retrospect, a wise policy?
“I’m not going to go back and revisit it,” he concluded.