The Iran Debate and the Echoes of History

Criticism of presidential treaties with adversarial governments goes back a long way.


White House

If Rip Van Winkle had gone to sleep sometime in the past five decades and awakened today, he would know nothing about the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. But he would have no trouble following the debate, because he's heard it before. Presidents, adversaries and the world have changed; the arguments have not. 

It's no surprise that the Republicans running for president find the accord to be lacking in any merit whatsoever. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ranked it among Barack Obama's "worst diplomatic failures." Jeb Bush called it "appeasement." 

Even Rand Paul, who sometimes diverges with GOP hawks, rejects it. Some of the other candidates couldn't comment because their heads were exploding. 

The United States has a long history of presidents, including Republican ones, striving to address nuclear dangers through negotiation instead of war. Every president going back to Dwight Eisenhower has pursued—and in most cases achieved—agreements involving doomsday weapons. 

Richard Nixon signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Soviet Union. Jimmy Carter put his name on the second—which Ronald Reagan opposed, only to abide by its terms once in office. Reagan went on to forge his own nuclear agreements with Moscow. 

George H.W. Bush negotiated another. So did Bill Clinton, who also made a nuclear deal with North Korea. When it collapsed, George W. Bush tried to reach a second accord. 

But the U.S. also has a long history of critics treating such efforts as products of blindness, wishful thinking and cowardice. Obama can take some consolation in knowing that Nixon and Reagan were also vilified as craven dupes. George W. Bush's efforts in the North Korea talks were labeled "immediate surrender." 

Welcome to the club. When Eisenhower hosted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, the legendary conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. distinctly heard "the death rattle of the West." 

It's not so much that the critics regard Obama as a villain and a weakling, though they do. It's more that he is engaged in a task they regard as inherently hopeless and destructive, if not evil. They could no more accept it than Baptists could renounce the Bible. 

This debate may appear to be just between Republicans and Democrats. But the real dispute is deeper than that. 

It's between those who believe the United States can generally rely on diplomacy to advance its interests and those who think military force is the only useful tool. It's between those who are prepared to accept compromises to make us safer and those who chase the fantasy of complete invulnerability. 

The particulars of any deal are not the problem. Arms control and diplomacy are the problem, because they require us to bargain with our adversaries to achieve compromises that serve the interests of each side. They obligate us to behave as though hostile governments have a right to exist. 

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., lamented, "A third-rate autocracy has now been given equality with a world power, the United States of America." Should we refuse to sit down with second-rate autocracies? First-rate autocracies? All autocracies? 

By that logic, diplomacy is inferior to war, because war allows us to destroy our enemies rather than dicker with them. So the theory goes, and sometimes it works—as when we smashed Nazi Germany. But war doesn't always work out well. Iraq and Afghanistan are just the latest examples of its pitfalls, including the possibility of creating new and worse dangers. 

In the case of Iran, Obama's critics insist we can get our way without launching air strikes. They claim economic sanctions, cranked higher, would make Tehran surrender. 
But the Bush administration tried that approach without success. As The New York Times reported this week, "every new round of sanctions was answered with an escalation in the size and aggressiveness of the Iranian program to enrich uranium." 

University of Chicago professor Robert Pape, who has studied previous sanctions efforts, says no country has ever been forced to capitulate on a vital matter of national security through economic sanctions. What makes anyone think Iran would be the first? 

History indicates that even conservatives, when they reach the Oval Office, come to appreciate the value of negotiating on nuclear disputes rather than going to war. The critics? They never learn. 

© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: 2 Reasons to Be Happy About the Iran Deal, and 1 Reason Not to Be

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  1. Our campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were ultimately unsuccessful in pacifying the region because we refused to conduct total warfare. The United States are history’s only hyperpower. But there is no point in our involvement in anything militarily if we’re unwilling to wage total war.

    1. History’s only “hyperpower”?

    2. yes if the government had only murdered more people everything would have turned out fine. clearly a few nuclear bombs would have finally won enough hearts and minds to turn the tide

      just like how quantitative easing was a failure because the fed didnt print enough money.

  2. Meh. Our destructive power is historic, I’m not so sure about our relative strength. Rome was pretty damn hyper power in its day, as was China.

    1. And Rome could and still was beaten at times by its enemies. Rome wasn’t the lone dominant power in the West (speaking broadly with that term), and had to deal with powerful empires on their eastern border that could and did match it militarily at times.

      America doesn’t even let its troops use a .50 cal unrestricted. I don’t disagree with that concept as invading countries and leveling them Genghis Khan style isn’t really the sort of country I want to be. Nor is total war a solution in the conflicts being fought when the goal is ostensibly to reduce the threat of terror attacks.

  3. This article puts forth a bit of a strawman. I don’t support the deal signed here because there is no faith. America does not trust Iran, Iran does not trust us, and the entire region hates the deal. What Iran wanted was breathing room, and it knows putting those sanctions back on will be a task.

    And quite a few of these sorts of deals just don’t end up working. Nor they do ease tensions for long or erase the threat of war. If Iran is caught violating the treaty they signed, what ends up happening? If the next president is a hawk and pushes Iran on these issues, and doesn’t feel it gets the cooperation it wants, what happens? A bad treaty that has little legitimacy can actually escalate tension.

    A bombing campaign isn’t going to destroy Iran’s nuke program. Neither were sanctions. But the hawks weren’t going to invade, either. If Israel could have been done with this by just conducting an airstrike, it would have happened already.

    Obama came to the bargaining table because his other solutions failed (cyberwar and economic pressure), and because he figured any deal was better than no deal. And yes, legacy nonsense comes into play for these politicians.

  4. This a terrible deal for a lot of reasons, but the main one is the number of centrifuges. Experts have stated repeatedly, to enrich uranium for nuclear power as Iran claims it is doing, a minimum of 20,000 centrifuges is needed. The deal limits the number to 5000. This small number of centrifuges limits the amount of uranium they can enrich and when any state has been limited to this number they have do so for a single purpose, created nuclear weapons. So the deal actually ENCOURAGES Iran to focus on developing nuclear weapons. In addition, it limits the amount of enriched uranium to 300kg. South African built 6 bombs of 50kg each, so the deal gives Iran the ability to enrich and make 6 nuclear bombs. I think there are many instances where the US got involved in fights we had no business fighting and lack the resolve once committed to win. However, to think for a moment, a rogue state like Iran who for 30+ years has been a dedicated foe of the US will suddenly play nice is outright stupidity. Iran will never keeps it promises because in their eyes we are infidels and lying to us is okay. In addition, Saudi Arabia and Israel will never permit IRran to develop a bomb for their own safety. Wrap the deal in any pretense you desire but the reality is the only thing it has ensured is the Middle East will be engulfed in a war within 10 years and the US will likely be dragged into it.

  5. “they require us to bargain with our adversaries to achieve compromises that serve the interests of each side. ”

    Obama gave away the farm. What” compromise” did Iran make?

  6. I can’t speak to the merits of this deal, but I think the process by which it will take effect is atrocious and wildly unconstitutional.

    In May Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act which establishes the process. Congress gets 60 days to review the deal then either agrees or not in the form of a “joint resolution”. If it approves Obama can begin to lift the sanctions; if it disapproves he cannot. But Obama has asserted that he has a right to veto that joint resolution. There is nothing in the Constitution which gives him that power, and I can find nothing in the statute which does either. Yet no one is calling him out on this.

    If Obama does have the power to veto this joint resolution, it can only be overridden with 2/3rd majorities in both houses. In other words, Obama can force the treaty into effect with the approval of a tiny minority: merely 1/3 of *one* House. This turns the approval process on its head. He merely needs the support of 145 congressmen, or 34 senators, and the agreement becomes effective. How can this possibly be the law?

    And it completely ignores the constitutional requirement that the Senate approve all treaties by a 2/3 majority. You can call this deal an “agreement” or anything else you like, but by any rational definition it is a treaty. This “approval” process has rendered the Treaty Clause a nullity. Yet I hear no one complaining. Clearly the Senate has zero interest in protecting its legitimate constitutional powers.

  7. This article, and several others on the same topic repeat the same false dilemma fallacy that the choice is this treaty or war. That simply isn’t true.

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