On Friday, I listed several reasons for major concerns about President Obama’s deal aimed at denying Iran nuclear weapons – at least for the next decade, or decade-and-a-half, depending on what importance you attach to various of the framework’s fixed-term provisions. This morning, the Washington Post’s Dan Balz provided near-dispositive evidence for my jitteriness about the inexperience and instincts of Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.
Here’s Mr. Obama’s own account, told to Balz, of how he reacted as a presidential candidate following a much-criticized (including by rival Hillary Clinton) promise he made in a 2007 campaign debate to meet with leaders of Iran and other rogue states without preconditions:
“Obama knew what the conventional wisdom was in those hours after the debate. On their way to the airport, he already could see the swirling criticism appearing on the Internet. He told his advisers, some of them nervous about the position he was in, to hold the line.
“‘I said: ‘Don’t back down. If we go down, we’re going down swinging,’ Obama later told me. ‘It was a moment where I felt confident enough to trust my instincts and also confident about the fact that I wasn’t going to be intimidated by the pundits. . . . This was a moment where I said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to make sure that whatever I do accords with what I believe.’”
“Obama’s compass on Iran might have been set at that moment.”
Again, you don’t need to put the nation’s foreign policy establishment or its punditocracy on a pedestal to note that this expression of supreme diplomatic confidence came from a politician who had served in the U.S. Senate at that time for less than two years, and was that far removed from his only other job in public life – Illinois state senator.
In fact, Kerry, a Senate veteran who chaired the foreign relations committee, has long been a pillar of the liberal wing of this establishment. Here’s what Balz writes of his outlook:
“Kerry motivation in producing an agreement with Iran is an extension of his long-held determination to affect the course of events in the Middle East. It was among his greatest disappointments in the aftermath of his defeat by then-President George W. Bush in the 2004 election that he would have no opportunity to try to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Kerry made a Middle East peace agreement a priority when he succeeded Clinton as secretary of state; he has nothing to show for it. Prospects for new negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians are nil, and relations between Israel and the United States, symbolized by the open warfare between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are at a low point in the history of the two countries.
“Kerry’s legacy as secretary of state may now rest in part on whether he can reach a final deal with Iran this summer and whether Iran lives up to the terms or whether it stalls, blocks or otherwise frustrates the international community on the implementation while continuing to sponsor and export terrorism across the region.
There could be at least four related possible reasons for Kerry’s obsession with an Israeli-Palestinian peace, none of them reassuring in the slightest:
>He (as with many other so-called Middle East experts) has no clue as to how stable – overwhelmingly in Israel’s favor – the power balance between the two is. (Click here for a reminder.)
>He believes that the Palestinian Arabs have some kind of abstract, absolute, perhaps moral right to nation-hood, regardless of strategic or other circumstances, even though history teaches no such lessons.
>He believes that he can make special contributions to this goal.
>He agrees with the dangerously fact-free claim that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will pacify most of the politically, socially, and economically diseased and indeed dysfunctional Middle East.
As I’ve written previously, no segment of the professional U.S. foreign policy community or political faction has had a monopoly on strategic ignorance and incompetence when it comes to the Middle East, or to America’s genuinely important interests in the rest of the world. The big question facing the country is how soon at least some of its leaders will start recognizing, however dimly, the conceptual failures staring them right in the face. In the meantime, unless the Iran deal proves much more effective than its American authors’ records suggest, the nation’s best hope for avoiding disaster could be a Congress that finally discovers a foreign policy backbone.