President Obama’s closing argument in favor of the Iran nuclear deal has become so exaggerated, so bitter, so simplified, that it risks parody.
He accuses his opponents of wanting another war — like the last one they caused in Iraq — and “making common cause” with Iranian hard-liners who chant “Death to America.” This goes beyond the questioning of patriotism. Critics of the agreement are, in Obama’s depiction, the bloodthirsty allies of theocratic butchers. Thanks so much, Mr. President, for your fair-minded words.
In the meantime, the Iranian regime has celebrated the nuclear agreement by defying it — blatantly sanitizing (with bulldozers) its military research site at Parchin and denying promised access to key scientists and military officials.
So: While Iran tests the limits of the deal — rubbing Obama’s face in the weakness of his enforcement position — he turns his anger on critics of the deal.
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What to make of this strategy?
First, exercising the rhetorical version of the nuclear option has an obvious political benefit. It is now evident that the Obama administration reached its agreement in a march of ever-more-humiliating concessions: on anytime, anywhere inspections, on accounting for past nuclear activities, on lifting the conventional arms embargo. Better to have a referendum on the Iraq War than serious congressional scrutiny of the embarrassing manner in which the Iran agreement was secured.
If Obama can make support for the deal a partisan, ideological cause, he can bring along enough liberals in Congress to save it. So break out the Iraq comparisons. Adopting the tone, language and reasoning of your average MSNBC panelist has some cost to the institution of the presidency. But in the age of Trump, who will notice?
This rhetorical strategy, by the way, is not just directed at Republicans. Obama won the presidency by attacking Hillary Clinton from the left for her vote in favor of the Iraq War. Now he is reminding moderate Democrats in Congress: The liberal base will not be happy if you defy me.
Second, we are seeing dramatic evidence of the incentive structure that is now in place. The deal must be preserved, according to the president, because the stark choice is “diplomacy or some form of war.” But does Obama not think that the Iranians can also tune into C-SPAN? He has granted them a tremendous advantage. They know that Obama’s argument will always be: How can we blow up the Iran deal over this or that violation if the only alternative to maintaining this agreement is war? Nearly any concession, any humiliation, is presumably better than that. And the Iranians seem content to cause Obama considerable humiliation, presumably reflecting their own internal, political dynamic. If you can’t destroy the Great Satan, make it look pathetic.
Third, I am willing to grant that Obama’s partisan attack is also a sincere expression of his policy views. Obama administration foreign policy in the Middle East has always been, at least in part, a reaction against the George W. Bush years. Bush had policies that involved coercion if certain conditions were not met. Obama authentically believes this approach was mistaken. While occasionally making vague statements that “everything is on the table,” Obama has effectively removed the threat of force from American nonproliferation policy in the Middle East. He has argued, again and again, that Americans are tired of conflict, tired of war, and that he personally shares this sentiment.
This belief has informed years of inaction in the Syrian crisis, even as 200,000 people died, and chemical weapons were employed against civilians. It informed the precipitous American retreat from Iraq, which has required a partial return. And it informs Obama’s approach to Iran. In recent times, America had an Iran policy, particularly an anti-proliferation policy, which involved economic sanctions and the credible threat of force. Obama has an Iran policy that involves diplomatic engagement and the threat of an (unlikely) snapback of economic sanctions. The Iranians are taking full advantage of this shift to fill the vacuum left by a retreating America.
By all means let’s recall a little history. In 2009, in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election, a Green Revolution raised the possibility of regime change — by popular uprising — in Iran. Obama did nothing to encourage it, for fear of undermining a nuclear deal. He effectively made common cause with Iranian hard-liners because they were at the negotiation table. And they are now rewarded with money, arms and global legitimacy. Who would they regard as their real benefactor?
To reach Michael Gerson, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.