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Iran Deal: Why Would We Heed The Same Voices That Are Always Wrong?

Nobody was surprised by Benjamin Netanyahu’s immediate denunciation of the Iran nuclear agreement as “a historic mistake for the world.” Echoing the Israeli prime minister’s opposition throughout the negotiations were all the usual suspects in this country — a panoply of pundits and politicians from Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and Fox News Channel analyst Charles Krauthammer to MNSBC host Joe Scarborough. Now this same crew will urge its rejection by the United States Senate.

Focusing on the alleged pitfalls of the deal between Iran and the world powers, these critics downplay provisions that would allow economic sanctions to “snap back” quickly if Iran violates its promises, and greatly increase the Islamic Republic’s difficulty in building an undetected bomb. They don’t explain that if the United States had walked away, the result would have been the disintegration of international sanctions, the rapid buildup of Iran’s nuclear capability,  and the likelihood of war – not just bombs, but “boots on the ground.”

What everyone should remember about the agreement’s prominent foes is something they will never mention: their own shameful record in promoting our very worst foreign policy mistake since Vietnam.

Like his admirers here, Netanyahu was a fervent proselytizer for war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He appeared before the United States Congress in 2002 to frighten Americans and whip up belligerence. “There is no question whatsoever” – mark those words – “that Saddam is seeking, is working, is advancing toward the development of nuclear weapons,” he intoned, restating the “mushroom cloud” rhetoric of national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and vice president Dick Cheney, among others.

Around the same time, Krauthammer declared: “Time is running short. Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. He is working on nuclear weapons. And he has every incentive to pass them on to terrorists who will use them against us.” As the vote on Bush’s war resolution approached that fall, he warned that “we must remove from power an irrational dictator who…is developing weapons of mass destruction that could kill millions of Americans in a day.”

And we heard the same endless, hysterical exhortations from Kristol, Scarborough, and the entire cohort that had been pushing for war in Iraq ever since 9/11. No doubt they wish we would forget they ever uttered such nonsense. But at the time they argued that not only would Saddam’s overthrow mean “the end of his weapons of mass destruction,” as Scarborough once gloated, but the democratic ouster of all our enemies in the Mideast.

On that claim, Netanyahu was unwavering and absolute. “If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime,” he told Congress, “I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region. And I think that people sitting right next door in Iran, young people, and many others, will say the time of such regimes, of such despots is gone.”

Of course, Bibi’s “guarantee” was worth less than the pitch of any used-car salesmen. So was Kristol’s blithering reassurance that Iraq’s Shi’a and the Sunni communities felt no enmity that would disrupt the bright future post-Saddam.

As Netanyahu noted not long ago – while arguing, ironically, against negotiations with Iran – the mullahs in Tehran now have far greater influence than we do over the Iraqi government in Baghdad, because both are dominated by Shi’a parties. (He failed to recall his own wrong predictions.) So we wasted blood and treasure to throw out Saddam and empower the Iranian mullahs in his place. And now the same figures responsible for that policy disaster demand that the United States turn away from the prospect of a peaceful resolution with Iran, and toward still another armed conflict.

The fundamental truth, recognized by Republican idol Ronald Reagan, is that negotiations are always preferable to war. Yet many on the American right have often preferred war, including the utterly insane risk of nuclear war, to dealing with our enemies. Earlier this year, Scarborough suggested that even if the Iran deal looked better than expected, he disdains peace talks on principle – as do the neoconservatives, who rose to prominence lobbying against strategic arms negotiations with the Soviet Union.

“I never trusted the Soviets,” said Scarborough. “I never wanted Reagan to make deals with the Soviets in the late ‘80s. It turned out well, but I was always against détente and against dealing with communists. And right now, I’m against dealing with a country whose Supreme Leader calls us the devil, who says death to America at the same time he’s negotiating this deal.”

“It turned out well” is to put it very mildly. Not only was President Reagan’s reputation enhanced, but owing to decades of negotiation, we avoided a nuclear conflict that would have ended life on this planet. Yet Scarborough and his ilk reject the idea of talking with our enemies – although any negotiation over matters of war and peace will always require that distasteful necessity.

Twelve years ago, we made the historic mistake of listening to all these false and foolish prophets. There is no excuse to repeat that tragic error.

Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shake hands in Vienna, on November 20, 2014, with Baroness Catherine Ashton. (U.S. Embassy Vienna via Flickr)

When The Hitler Card Won’t Do, Play The Chamberlain Card

If he accomplished nothing else during his presidency, Barack Obama has surely earned a place in the Bad Political Analogies Hall of Fame. According to savants on Fox News and right-wing editorial pages, Obama is both Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who capitulated to Nazi territorial demands in 1938.

That is, to the more fervid exponents of the Sore Loser Party, President Obama is both a psychotic dictator and a spineless appeaser of tyrants.

(I am indebted for this insight to Washington, D.C., attorney Mike Godwin, promulgator of “Godwin’s Law,” which holds that the first person to play the Hitler card in a political argument automatically loses.)

I’m thinking the law also needs a Chamberlain corollary, because the Permanent War Caucus on the Republican right accuses every American president who negotiates an arms pact with our putative enemies of weakening national security. Always and with no known exceptions.

President Nixon got compared to Neville Chamberlain for his (strategically brilliant) opening to China, as well as for the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) with the Soviet Union.

In 1988, something called the Conservative Caucus, Inc. took out full-page newspaper ads arguing that “appeasement is as unwise in 1988 as in 1938.” The ad mocked President Reagan with Chamberlain’s iconic umbrella, and compared Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to Hitler.

In 1989, of course, the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR imploded.

Jonathan Chait sums up the right’s paradoxical case against Obama, weakling dictator: “He is naive in the face of evil, desperate for agreement, more willing to help his enemies than his friends. The problem is that conservatives have made this same diagnosis of every American president for 70 years…Their analysis of the Iran negotiations is not an analysis at all, but an impulse.”

Despite the fact that Tehran made concessions most observers thought were impossible, the right hates this deal because they hate all deals. Today, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his U.S. supporters, such as the forever-wrong William Kristol, describe Iran’s leaders as the new Führer. The apocalyptic enemy before that was the Tehran regime’s bitter enemy, Saddam Hussein.

Anyway, we all know how invading Iraq worked out.

Iran is five times Iraq’s size, has three times its population, and has extremely forbidding terrain.

No matter. To the Permanent War Caucus, it’s always 1938 and blitzkrieg is eternally threatened. Netanyahu has been predicting Iran’s imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons for almost 20 years now — although the Wile E. Coyote bomb cartoon is a relatively recent touch.

Israel, of course, has a nuclear arsenal of its own.

But what really makes the Hitler/Chamberlain comparison so foolish isn’t simply that it’s a cliché. It’s that it completely misrepresents the power balance between the U.S., its allies, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China, and militarily weak, politically and strategically isolated Iran.

In 1938, Nazi Germany had the strongest military in the world. (Indeed, there’s a revisionist school that holds Neville Chamberlain was wise to postpone an inevitable war while Britain re-armed.)

Shiite Iran, by contrast, can scarcely project power much beyond its borders, and is threatened by traditional enemies on all sides. Examine a map of the Middle East. Tehran is almost 1,000 miles from Jerusalem. Ethnically and linguistically distinct, the Persians are surrounded by hostile Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, which repress their own Shiite minorities, and are fanatically opposed to the Ayatollahs.

Almost unknown in this country, U.S. client Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran — complete with nerve gas attacks on the Persians and Kurds –remains a bitter memory. ISIS terrorists are massacring Shiites by the thousands in Iraq and Syria. For that matter, check out the U.S. military bases ringing the Persian Gulf, along with omnipresent, nuclear-armed aircraft carriers and submarines.

One needn’t have a particle of sympathy for Iran’s odious theocratic government to see that we’ve got them totally outgunned and surrounded. Economic sanctions engineered by the Obama administration have really hurt. So yes, if they thought they could trust us, it would be very much in Tehran’s interest to make a deal and stick to it — putting the nuclear temptation aside in favor of what amounts to anti-invasion insurance.

But can we trust them?

President Obama explained his thinking to the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman: “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing…people don’t seem to understand.”

“[W]ith respect to Iran…a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us. You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”

If you’re really strong, in other words, act strong.

Photo: British prime minister Neville Chamberlain (left) and German chancellor Adolf Hitler (in light jacket), leave their meeting at Bad Godesberg, September 23, 1938. Via Wikicommons.