Because the Middle East has fomented some of the world’s most protracted and agonizing conflicts, it’s easy to forget that it has also been the wellspring of some of the world’s greatest wisdom. As just one example, a certain teacher born more than 2,000 years ago preached a message of peace that has remained one of the most inspiring of human legacies.
So it seems fitting that, as the celebration of his birth approaches, the Middle East has a new chance at, if not outright peace, then leashing the dogs of war. President Barack Obama and several Western allies have negotiated an agreement with the ancient land of Persia, now Iran, that could coax it away from its path toward nuclear weapons.
This nascent agreement, uncertain though its outcome may be, ought to be cause for some, well, thanksgiving. If nothing else, it signals a thawing in relations between Iran and the United States for the first time since American diplomats were taken hostage in 1979.
If Iran can be lured back into the community of nations, temperatures across the region might be lowered dramatically. While it has long been an influential player in the Middle East, its authority only grew when George W. Bush deposed Saddam Hussein, who had served as a counterweight to Iran. The land of the ayatollahs props up the savage Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, threatens Israel and promotes terrorism throughout the region. If it can be persuaded to stop its mischief-making, the seeds of peace might bloom.
Oddly, though, this cautious détente has not been universally well received. Take the reaction of several leading Republicans, for example. Even before they knew any of the details of the agreement, they retreated to a reflexive posture: If Obama is for it, we’re against it.
Minutes after news services announced a deal — but before most of us, including dyspeptic Republicans, knew what was in it — GOP heavyweights started denouncing it. Some went with the overworked comparison to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis. Some accused the president of increasing tensions in the Middle East.
But the silliest reactions here in the U.S. were those that claimed Obama was negotiating with Iran in order to distract attention from the problems with his rollout of Obamacare.
Never mind that Iran happens to be a huge source of trouble in the world (as poor health care is a big problem here at home). Never mind that Obama promised during his first presidential campaign — to the derision of John McCain — that he would negotiate with Iran. Some Republicans who ought to know better, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, went with the distraction argument.
Still, the disloyal opposition in Congress didn’t have the worst response to news of a few small steps toward peace. That award goes to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who had a meltdown of the sort usually performed by preschoolers. He claimed the agreement may force him to attack Iran — a statement so irrational that, well, let’s let a prominent Israeli critic, blogger Gershom Gorenberg, sum it up: “… the poor man is not thinking clearly.”
Have we become so enamored of war, so comfortable with conflict, that this is our reaction to the slimmest possibility of a peaceful resolution to a decades-long threat? Are we so unhinged by the prospect of beating our swords into plowshares that we won’t even consider sheathing them for a moment?
This deal relaxes economic sanctions in exchange for an Iranian agreement to freeze its nuclear program and allow in inspectors. It gives the U.S. and its allies time to see if they can come to a permanent agreement with Iran to halt its work on a nuclear weapon, but the deal has an expiration date of six months. If Iran reneges, there is nothing that prevents war at a future date. So why the hysteria — not just from Republicans, but from some Democrats as well?
No matter the season, it seems, humans have difficultly giving peace a chance. It’s a powerful reminder why the teachings of that simple carpenter still matter so much.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Downing Street via Flickr