allies, arms control, China, Cold War, INF treaty, inspections, Iran, Iran deal, New York Times, nuclear proliferation, nuclear weapons, Obama, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Richard Nixon, Robert Gates, Ronald Reagan, sanctions, Soviet Union, Thomas Friedman, verification
On Day Two of what we might call the Iran Nuclear Deal Era, I find myself wondering whether the more President Obama speaks out on the agreement, the weaker public support will get. Based on his new interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, this at least certainly should be the case.
To be clear, I continue to believe there could be a respectable case for Congress approving the agreement. It depends largely on technical questions about whether the monitoring and verification provisions really are crafted well enough to at least postpone Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. I have strong doubts for political reasons, as I’ve explained, but hesitate at this point to decide definitively. These are matters that should be illuminated by serious evaluation process by lawmakers. Yet the Friedman interview casts further doubt on Mr. Obama’s strategic and political judgment, which House and Senate members need to consider as well.
Arguably the loopiest claim Mr. Obama made in the interview came in response to Friedman’s question, “Why should the Iranians be afraid” of “serious U.S. military retaliation if [they cheat]?” In fact, the question itself was kind of loopy, since the most immediate question raised by the prospect of Iranian violations is whether sanctions really are certain to be “snapped back” on. Even so, I was startled to read Mr. Obama answer, “Because we could knock out their military in speed and dispatch if we chose to, and I think they have seen my willingness to take military action where I thought it was important for U.S. interests.”
Leave aside any doubts over the president’s trigger finger. Does he really believe that the United States, either alone or even together with allies, could reduce Iran to a military pygmy? If so, then why doesn’t he have similar confidence about destroying Iran’s nuclear complex? What’s known of it is located in many fewer locations than Tehran’s military deployments, and without any meaningful Iranian defenses, America would face a much easier challenge monitoring and, if need be, acting against any other facilities. Moreover, these undeclared sites would pose much less of a proliferation danger in the absence of the declared sites.
Just as important: Could this possibly be the Plan B I called for yesterday? At least for now, I sure hope not, especially given warnings against this course of action from a wide range of military experts in the United States, Israel, and abroad, including Mr. Obama’s own former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Mr. Obama’s discussion of sanctions, moreover, seems to bear out my concerns that international support for keeping Iran non-nuclear has always been paper-thin, and that as a result, talk of automatic or even highly likely snap back is nonsense. On the one hand, the president told Friedman that the current sanctions have “crippled the Iranian economy and ultimately brought them to the table.” He attributed their effectiveness to widespread global agreement that “it would be a great danger to the region, to our allies, to the world, if Iran possessed a nuclear weapon.”
On the other hand, however, Mr. Obama emphatically insisted that “in the absence of a deal, our ability to sustain these sanctions was not in the cards,” mainly because so many other countries had paid so much greater an economic price that America. He continued:
“if they saw us walking away from what technical experts believe is a legitimate mechanism to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon — if they saw that our diplomatic efforts were not sincere, or were trying to encompass not just the nuclear program, but every policy disagreement that we might have with Iran, then frankly, those sanctions would start falling apart very rapidly.”
But as I emphasized yesterday, countries that evidently have made their economic pain so clear to Mr. Obama can’t possibly view a nuclear weapons-free Iran as their top priority, and can’t be relied on to implement threats of snap back – unless an Iranian violation is genuinely obvious and egregious. In fact, the further into the deal’s time frame we proceed, the less reliable the allies will become – since they’ll have ever more Iran-related business to lose.
Finally, for now, it’s disturbing to see Mr. Obama compare his Iran breakthrough with (using Friedman’s words) “the same strategic logic that Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan used to approach the Soviet Union and China.” But as I noted yesterday, America’s China policy looks ever more like an historic failure. Beijing has become increasingly powerful and belligerent, and the leadership’s hold on power has remained strong because the trade profits and technology it’s secured (largely) from the United States have enabled it to foster prosperity as well as build up its military.
If anything, the Reagan-Soviet analogy is further off base. The former president signed a treaty on intermediate range nuclear weapons (INF) with Mikhail Gorbachev, and agreed to resume talks with Moscow on longer range, strategic arms. But before the INF deal was signed, he deployed American missiles in Europe to offset previous Soviet installations, and more broadly launched a huge military (including nuclear) buildup that played a big role in persuading Soviet leaders that the vastly superior U.S. economy could race theirs into the ground. The president also worked overtime to keep curbs on western dealings with the Soviet economy – often over heated allied objections. And in an interesting coda, the Obama administration recently has accused Russia of violating the INF accord.
It’s still of course possible that Mr. Obama has produced an Iran deal that protects American national security better than any realistic alternative. But if he has, the Friedman interview strongly suggests that the adage “Nonsense in, nonsense out” (to put it politely) will never be the same.