One cannot help but feel sorry for President Barack Obama. After twenty months of painstaking negotiations with Iran and America’s coalition partners, hours of hearings on Capitol Hill, countless closed briefings for lawmakers, and scores of articles and opinion pieces about the nuclear deal, few if any have taken note of the President’s real achievement: Yes, he has blocked all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb. But more importantly, he has proven to America that security is better achieved through diplomacy than through militarism.
This may sound obvious and redundant, but the very debate around the nuclear deal reveals how deeply rooted the mindset of militarism is in American political culture, despite its moral bankruptcy and questionable security utility.
In his speech at American University on August 5, Obama made clear that the Iran nuclear deal is a product of him leading America away from the damaging over-militarization of America’s foreign and national security policies following the September 11th attacks. “When I ran for President eight years ago as a candidate who had opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq, I said that America didn’t just have to end that war – we had to end the mindset that got us there in the first place,” Obama said. “It was a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy.”
But a single foreign-policy achievement, however historic and momentous, a mindset does not change. Particularly if the debate surrounding the deal remains deeply rooted in the old, militaristic mindset. Herein lies the Obama administration’s own shortcomings in the debate. While the president made clear his aim to shift America’s security mindset, most of the arguments employed to convince lawmakers to support to deal are rooted in the mindset that led America into Iraq, not in the mindset that enabled the diplomatic victory with Iran.
The Iraq war mindset is one where strength above all else produces security. An attitude that, in the words of Obama, “equates security with a perpetual war footing.” This mindset, in turn, produces a fear of not projecting strength; of looking weak. As the president pointed out in his speech, “Those calling for war labeled themselves strong and decisive, while dismissing those who disagreed as weak – even appeasers of a malevolent adversary.”
This desire to look strong, borne out of this mindset, continues to define the debate over the Iran deal. It has led some supporters of the deal to highlight the military justifications behind their support, even though this defeats the larger purpose of the deal itself: To shift the paradigm from militarism to diplomacy.
Trying to win the peace with Iran by highlighting war is not entirely incomprehensible when you consider the state of U.S.-Iran relations within America’s domestic politics. Since the hostage crisis, ties between Washington and Tehran have been characterized by estrangement at best and war footing at worst. The domestic political need to sell the nuclear deal from a position of strength is also understandable given the American public’s hesitancy about Iran. The continued imprisonment of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, “Death to America” chants, and disagreements over regional policies have not helped matters.
Precisely because of Iran’s toxicity within American politics, many within the Washington DC establishment guard against being tarred as an appeaser by emphasizing the military when selling peace. Former Senator Carl Levin was one of only 23 Senators who had the courage and wisdom to vote against the Iraq war in 2002, but he has fallen back on war-based justifications for the deal. In a recent op-ed with former Senator John Warner, he argued that “rejecting it would weaken the deterrent value of America’s military option…[and] make it more costly for the U.S. to mount any subsequent military operation.”
Secretary of State John Kerry deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his instrumental role in helping to secure the nuclear deal, but even he is forced to defend peace by highlighting how it strengthens the military option. In response to questioning during Congressional testimony, Kerry asserted that the unprecedented inspections and verification mechanisms in the deal allow for a better understanding of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, thereby making a bombing campaign against Iran easier if necessary. As the old saying goes, diplomacy without the military is like an orchestra without the instruments – but this line of domestic political reasoning misses the bigger picture.
Lost in the domestic political debate over the deal’s merits and asinine accusations that the President is an anti-Semite is the fact that Obama clearly outlined a paradigm shift with regard to Iran that is in lock step with the preferences of a majority of war weary Americans. He knows that the American public overwhelmingly prefers diplomacy and opposes war when it comes to both Iran’s nuclear program and America’s projection of power around the world.
Obama can initiate this paradigm shift, but he cannot complete it on his own. His allies and other supporters of the Iran nuclear deal must be mindful of the fact that military justifications for diplomatic solutions implicitly vindicate the military mindset within which the Iran nuclear deal never can be fully appreciated.
That should be a lesson that America has learned after over a decade of war. As the debate over the Iran deal concludes and the next policy crisis comes to the fore, both Obama’s friends and foes would be wise to take his advice: “Resist the conventional wisdom and the drumbeat of war. Worry less about being labeled weak; worry more about getting it right.”
Indeed, if the Iran nuclear deal solely prevents an Iranian bomb but fails to shift the security paradigm in America towards peace building through diplomacy rather than the militarism of perpetual warfare, then truly a historic opportunity will have been lost.Back to top