Richard Nixon won a Senate seat after implying his “pink lady” opponent was a communist, but went on to open relations with “Red China” in the 1970s. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” then negotiated nuclear arms reduction agreements with his Soviet counterpart.
President Obama is comparing himself to those two Republican presidents as he seeks support for the new international deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program. But he should add at least one more. George H.W. Bush sent U.S. troops to end the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, forced Iraqi troops to withdraw, and called it a victory. He defined a narrow mission and achieved it — which is exactly what Obama is attempting on Iran.
Bush’s success was immediately apparent, both on the ground in the Middle East and in public opinion polls at the time. In February 1991, as the combat phase of the Persian Gulf War ended, Gallup pegged his job approval rating at 89 percent. Clearly the country did not expect or particularly want him to storm Baghdad and oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
The agreement forged by Iran, the United States, and other world powers requires Iran to keep its nuclear program “exclusively peaceful” for at least a decade. It is the best chance to avoid another war in the Middle East, Obama said in announcing the pact, and added that it also offers Iran a chance to “move in a new direction” — toward more tolerance, prosperity, engagement, and peaceful conflict resolution.
“But we’re not counting on that,” the president said Wednesday at a news conference. The agreement, he said, “is not contingent on Iran suddenly operating like a liberal democracy. It solves one particular problem” — a problem he says was our original No. 1 priority, “which is making sure that they don’t have a bomb.”
Obama drew on Reagan’s trust-but-verify approach to Soviet leaders when he told the nation that “this deal is not built on trust. It is built on verification.” Yet trust, while it may not be a cornerstone of the deal, is at the core of how much support Obama will be able to build for it.
Trust in our era is largely a partisan commodity. Every Republican presidential candidate came out against the deal, some before they even knew what was in it, most in apocalyptic terms. Even Sen. Rand Paul, probably the most war-averse candidate in the mix, called it “unacceptable” and said he would vote against it.
The trust gap showed up in headlines like this one from Fox News Radio: “Obama’s Iran deal: Nixon to China or Chamberlain to Munich?” It was also apparent in a tweet from Stuart Stevens, who was Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in 2012: “Advantage that POTUS’ like JFK & Reagan had selling treaties was belief they’d stand firm if pushed. This is when ‘red line’ drift hurts.”
It’s a conservative tenet that Obama is weak. He is not sending U.S. ground troops to help fight the Islamic State, a step some Republican presidential candidates say is necessary. And, as Stevens noted, he did not make Syrian leader Bashar Assad pay for crossing a “red line” that Obama defined as using chemical weapons. Iran knows that “we could knock out most of their military capacity pretty quickly,” the president told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. But how many conservatives believe he would actually do that?
Yet Obama is steely in some ways, such as ordering the risky raid that killed Osama bin Laden and — in the face of non-stop GOP denunciations — sticking to his belief that diplomacy should be the first option, war the last. In that respect, he is on the same page as most Americans regarding Iran. Polls show majorities favor a deal, but support could fade as Obama makes the case for it and Republicans paint it as catastrophic.
How is the average American to know who’s right? “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons,” says the 159-page agreement. That’s easy to understand, but hard to trust. And the parts that might make it easier to trust are incomprehensible. For instance: “For the full IR-1 cascade (No. 6), Iran will modify associated infrastructure by removing UF6 pipework, including sub-headers, valves and pressure transducers at cascade level, and frequency inverters.”
There’s no getting around it: If you like and generally agree with Obama, you’ll trust his judgment. If you don’t like him and generally disagree with him, you will trust opponents of the deal. The moves by Nixon and Reagan led to big changes and broad progress, and Obama’s might, too. But he says he’s not betting on it. That’s a page out of the first President Bush’s playbook, and the best way to avoid unrealistic expectations, charges of naiveté and, ultimately, the perception of failure.
Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Photo: George H.W. Bush riding in a Humvee with General Schwarzkopf in Saudi Arabia, November 22, 1990. Via Wikicommons.