Do Arguments Matter? Senator Schumer and the Politics of the Iran Deal
I don’t know the actual calculation that Senator Chuck Schumer is making in opposing a deal that is so clearly in the interests of the United States. It seems likely, as James Fallows has suggested, that he has done so secure in the knowledge that his vote is not needed, so that he can safely avoid getting voted out of office by angry New Yorkers (while continuing, one might add, to build on the small fortune he has received from AIPAC since 2008). That reasoning seems likely not because we can know the inside of the Senator’s mind, but simply because, in this case, the arguments against the deal are so manifestly weak that only hidden rationales seem plausible.
In the case of the Republicans, there is no better explanation than the President’s quip that “the degree of polarization that currently exists in Washington is such where I think it’s fair to say if I presented a cure for cancer, getting legislation passed to move that forward would be a nail-biter.” If one wishes to add a secondary motive to the Republican’s predetermined demonization of everything Obama, one can of course add their mantra that Democrats are soft on national security. After all, that view has been a staple of partisan polemics since the Vietnam War substantially divided the country between knee jerk Republican hawks and knee jerk Democratic doves. Obama has certainly displayed evidence of a dovish predisposition in past Middle East policies; had he been in less of a rush to leave Iraq, and less paralyzed over Syria, we might have been spared the emergence of the Islamic State and deepening sectarian war.
But one has to evaluate policies case by case. Obama did anticipate the danger of a nuclear Iran, devised a long-term strategy to prevent it, and applied that strategy with creativity and patience until it worked. He formed a coalition of the world’s leading powers (including Russia and China) and held it together, broke Iran’s economy with crippling sanctions, compelled Supreme Leader Khamenei to make humiliating retreats from pledges to domestic hardliners and the Iranian people, and, in the end, halted a decades long Iranian program that was just months from success. In forestalling Iran’s nuclear ambitions, no president in the nuclear age has ever demonstrated Obama’s level of mastery of the interplay between technical, political, and strategic issues characterizing efforts at meaningful arms control, nor has arms control ever before succeeded in a region as complex and unstable as the Middle East.
The potency of Republican attacks depends ultimately on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s efforts to depict the consequences of the Iran deal in apocalyptic terms, which license rhetorical flights like Mike Huckabee’s assertion that Obama was marching Israelis “to the door of the oven.” It would be great to see Obama and Netanyahu in a globally televised debate, which would quickly expose Netanyahu’s misleading assertions and the utter unrealism of his proposed alternative. Such a debate could do more than expose the absurdity of depicting the current battle as a debate between two equally defensible positions. It would also help settle a broader question posed by the Republican Party’s embrace of Netanyahu as a god-like figure: who should get to determine United States foreign policy: America or Israel?
Obama has finally come into his own as an effective leader on the world stage — a phenomenon that deserves maximum visibility. To have this welcome development thwarted by alliance between a Republican Party that has lost its mind (note here the ascendency of Donald Trump), a small army of AIPAC lobbyists who essentially work for a foreign government, and a handful of electorally endangered Democrats — would be a major setback for the United States and a tragedy for the Middle East.
At this point, the compelling arguments that have generated expert consensus in support of the deal are available for all who are seriously interested — recent pieces in the Atlantic and by Harvard’s Belfer Center can take one as deeply into the substance as one’s time and interest allow. Simply put, the deal achieves a single, vital objective: preventing Iran from going nuclear for at least ten years. And what happens should the United States back out of the deal it has negotiated? There are several possibilities, all bad. At best, the deal will go forward without the United States, in which case Europe, Russia, and China will abandon sanctions, leaving the United States sidelined as the leading external power in the region (i.e., depriving a dangerously unstable region of any possible source of cohesive international engagement). Or the deal will simply collapse, along with the sanctions regime, in which case Iran will acquire nuclear weapons within a year or so. The only alternative to those bad possibilities is the United States launch of a preventive war. As anyone with a memory of Iraq 2003 should know, that option opens Pandora’s Box. Consider how much rage another United States war on a Muslim nation could generate. To what extent, one should wonder, would Sunni and Shiite extremists put their sectarian war on the back burner, and instead turn their energies, boosted by an army of new converts, to the one agenda that they fully share: “Death to America. Death to Israel.”
While one can hardly assume that the deal will unleash positive forces that set the stage for long-term transformation — either of the Iranian theocracy or the broader regional sources of danger — what it will do is buy time. That is all any arms control agreement can achieve: time to address underlying conflicts, and time to react to cheating. Yes, Iran may one day break out of the agreement, and then, but only then, will the United States be forced to choose between a nuclear Iran and a “preventive war” that nobody: Iranians, Americans, Israelis, or the anguished populations of the wider Middle East, can possibly want. If opponents of the deal prevail, such dangers will be transformed from pessimistic speculation about distant futures to an approaching crisis with no good options.
One hopes that Senator Schumer did an accurate head count of the Senate before choosing to play the role of the most influential opponent of an agreement that he surely knows is vital for our security.