Saturday, August 08, 2015

Obama's framing of the Iran deal

James Fallows has a good article based on President Obama's speech and a subsequent on-the-record press briefing with him talking about Obama's defense of the nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran, The President Defends His Iran Plan The Atlantic 08/07/2015.

But one part of Obama's argument does concern me:

Many critics of the deal, and some supporters and others in the press, are furious about what they feel is Obama’s scare-tactic false choice: If you don’t vote for this deal, you’re voting for war. ... Eli Lake, of Bloomberg, lamented Obama’s stooping to the “politics of fear.”
He quotes Obama defending it by pointing out scenarios in which Iran could accelerate it's nuclear program much faster absent the agreement than if it's in place.

Then he quotes Obama's argument:

So in almost every scenario, our ability to monitor what’s happening in Iran, our ability to ensure that they are not breaking out, our ability to inspect their facilities, our ability to force them to abide by the deal has gone out the window.

And as I said in the speech, everybody around this table knows that within six months or nine months—I don’t know how long it would take—of Iran having pulled out of this deal, or cheated on this deal, or interpreted the deal in a way that was deemed contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the deal, that some of the same voices who were opposed to the deal would insist that the only way to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is to take strikes. And it will be framed as limited military strikes, and it will be suggested that Iran will not respond. But we will have entered into a war.

That doesn’t mean that Iran suddenly attacks us directly. It does mean that I’ve got a whole bunch of U.S. troops on the ground trying to help Baghdad fight ISIL, and they’re now looking over their shoulders with a host of Shia militia. It does mean that Hezbollah potentially makes use of some of those rockets into Israel, which then precipitates us having to take action. It does mean that the Strait of Hormuz suddenly becomes a live theater in which one member of the IRGC, or Quds Force, or [Iranian Quds Force commander] Mr. Soleimani directs a suicide speedboat crashing into one of our naval ships, in which case I think it’s fair to say that the commander in chief of the United States will be called upon to respond. [my emphasis]
Fallows writes:

This sensitivity to fear-mongering is selective at best, considering the apocalyptic tone of many arguments against the deal. ...

So when he says it’s the deal, or war, this is the case he is making. “I do not say that a military option is inevitable just to be provocative, just to win the argument. Those are the dictates of cold, hard logic.”

Agree with him or not, to classify this as “fear-mongering,” on a topic where presidential candidates are talking about “leading to the door of the oven” and a “declaration of war on Israel,” is to stretch that term beyond meaning. (And a new term altogether would be useful for the irrepressible Dick Cheney, who most recently said that the deal would make “the actual use of nuclear weapons more likely.”)
It's very true that the Republicans pretty obviously favor war with Iran.

But is this Administration seriously worried that Iran-backed Shi'a militias would team up with the radical Sunni extremists in ISIS to fight Americans?

And it's not at all obvious to me why Hizbullah firing rockets at Israel would necessitate the US going to war with Iran!

Fred Kaplan writes about Obama's arguments for the agreement in Obama Unbound Slate 08/06/2015. This is one thing Obama seems to be doing right: "One thing he’s no longer trying to do is to convert the opponents, who, locked by justifiable anxieties or irredeemable biases, have shown that they’re unswayable by logic and uninterested in the facts."

And Kaplan gives some examples of Republicans expressing warlike intentions toward Iran:

Obama also noted the irony of the critics who howl at his suggestion that they’d rather go to war than sign the deal. He recalled, “Some of these same people, just a while back, were arguing we should just go ahead and take a strike.” Though he didn’t mention names, John Bolton, a former Bush administration official, has explicitly called for air strikes as the best option on the table. And in recent hearings, one of the deal’s most outspoken opponents, Sen. Lindsey Graham, exclaimed, “Who wins the war between us and Iran? ... We win!”

Paul Pillar gives the President a pass on continuing with some fear-mongering over Iran in this particular circumstance, in a piece where he is talking about several common but problematic assumptions in US foreign policy (Iraq, Iran, and the President on Mindsets The National Interest 08/05/2015):

Another element of this thinking that could be mentioned, but that President Obama did not explicitly do so, is a black-and-white perspective that tends to see the Middle East as starkly divided between good-guy allies and bad-guy adversaries, with Iran currently occupying the most prominent place in the latter camp. Although the president did speak of the wisdom of making deals with one's adversaries, he did not fundamentally challenge this perspective, despite its incongruence with reality. That is probably understandable and forgivable, given the need for him to maintain enough political correctness about Iran (and about Israel) to get the nuclear agreement through the Congressional gauntlet and across the finish line. [my emphasis]
What Eli Lake is doing in the column to which James Fallows objects is a very different kind of criticism. He's making a not-so-subtle suggestion that Obama is trying to motivate his (to Lake contemptible) base with anti-Semitic dog whistles (Obama Plays Politics of Fear to Get His Iran Deal 08/03/2015):

This kind of dog whistling from Obama does a disservice to his supporters. He's exploiting his base's deep fear of all things neoconservative. It's true that neocons in 2002 and 2003 supported and argued for the Iraq war. Some of them helped plan the war. But many Democrats also supported the Iraq war, including Obama's first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. And yet in 2015 many prominent progressives still obsess about the out-of-power neocons, and darkly imply that they undermine the national interest on behalf of Israel.

For Obama's base, the neocons were not just policy intellectuals on the wrong side of an unpopular war, but were instead agents that pulled off a kind of coup d'etat and foisted a war on an unsuspecting public. Most serious people don't believe this anymore. But it's nonetheless a popular fable among the net-roots to this day. What a terrifying world! Every election brings with it the prospect that our republic will fall under the power of a bunch of disloyal bureaucrats eager to shed American blood for Israel.
I'm with Fallows in his criticism of Lake's column!