“I believe it is peace for our time.”
-Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister on the 1938 Munich Agreement appeasing Adolph Hitler
One of the senators in the 1962 film adaptation of Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent” is noted for always stating his position on any matter up for a vote by saying, “Opposed, Sir; I’m Opposed.”
In the film, the senator is portrayed as a sleepy old man who rarely even bothers to know what the issue is before stating his perfunctory opposition. It’s a comical portrait, or at least, it’s intended as such in the film, and at the time of Drury’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel (Doubleday and Company, 1959) such a view of a U.S. senator would have been hard to pin on any one individual. Those were the days of bi-partisanship and collegiality, when bills were considered with only the rarest use of a filibuster and when issues of foreign affairs were a source of unanimity far more often than of rancorous debate.
Ah, how times have changed. The recently struck deal with Iran that Barack Obama and John Kerry will present to the Senate for the equivalent of the ratification of a treaty is already producing much the same kind of opposition from a large segment of the Senate that the Drury senator is depicted as mouthing in the Otto Preminger directed film. In a count of all senators taken by The Hill shortly after the deal was announced, only 18 of the 100 (all of them Democrats) were noted as either firmly in support of the deal or leaning that way. All but five of the 54 Republicans expressed firm or probable opposition to it.
So it’s safe to say that Obama faces an uphill battle in his effort to gain Senate approval of the Iran deal. But if logic prevails, the deal should be approved, since the alternatives to accepting it are problematic, to say the least. Before exploring those alternatives, however, let’s analyze the concerns about the deal.
The biggest concern, of course, is that Iran will cheat on the deal and will continue to work on developing the amount of nuclear capacity that can produce a nuclear bomb. No one, other than Iran itself, wants that development to occur for the simple reason that it would make the Middle East even more unstable than it already is. And on the matter of cheating, the deal does appear to be less airtight than it could be, albeit as soon as Iran was discovered to be cheating, the international community would undoubtedly react, at the least, with a re-imposition of the economic sanctions that have forced Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. (Let’s remember, however, that the sanctions only work when they are universally enforced; more on that point in a moment.)
The second concern about the deal is that it really only kicks the can down the road for ten years, whereupon either a new deal would be struck or we’d be back to the status quo ante, with Iran presumably that much more secure economically and that much more capable of re-doubling its nuclear acquisition efforts.
But much can happen in ten years, not the least of which could be a softening of Iran’s militancy (owing to any number of reasons, including the rising frustrations of its young people and the appeals of Western culture, along with the possibility of a quasi-alliance with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS). Iran will evolve. The world will look different ten years from now.
The third concern, one deserving of far less credence, is that the message sent to Iran and other rogue states (ISIS, North Korea, maybe Venezuela) is that the United States is “soft,” meaning it lacks the will to “fight” or to use its military might. This concern is really an old canard that has been the equivalent of a campaign theme for Republicans in almost every instance of “hawk/dove” debates since the Vietnam War. The presumed logic of it is that foreign leaders judge U.S. willingness to go to war based on previous U.S decisions (some of them made by previous administrations dealing with entirely different issues).
These concerns, legitimate though the first two may be, are more than outweighed by the problems with any of the alternatives to approving the Iran deal. The first and most apparent alternative is to attempt to reinstitute the economic sanctions that brought Iran to the table in the first place. But the sanctions only worked because just about every country honored them. That coalition will not form again should the Senate vote against the deal (initially, and in overriding a veto), thereby forcing Obama, or his successor, to cancel U.S. participation in it.
Neither Russia nor China would join up again, and much of Europe might resist signing on to sanctions just because the U.S. refused to honor the deal. In fact, rejecting the deal without giving it a chance is the surest way to make Iran look sympathetic, if that’s possible, since it would then be the U.S. that would be viewed as intransigent in the face of a willingness to negotiate and compromise from the theocrats in Iran.
But the more significant alternative (one that you won’t hear many Republicans actually stating) would be to go to war against Iran. How else, absent the renewed sanctions, could Iran’s nuclear program be halted?
Now war can be waged in many ways, but it almost always involves bombing and killing, and it almost never avoids collateral damage. Among the likely collateral damage in a war against Iran would be political upheaval and disunity domestically, and who knows what kind of eruption of hostilities amongst the neighboring states in the Middle East (to say nothing of the likely increase in influence exerted by the Islamic State and its band of ISIS terrorists).
In seeking approval of the Iran deal, Obama’s biggest task might be to persuade the American people that he is no Neville Chamberlain. To do so, he should emphasize the risks of rejecting the deal.