by Robert Hunter
The US debate on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran is in full swing and will not be resolved soon. That must wait until the final vote in the House and Senate on whether to override President Barack Obama’s promised veto of a congressional resolution of disapproval. Until then, we can expect only rival commentaries on the merits and demerits of the JCPOA. These will be less about the merits/demerits than about the political power and influence of the various parties to the national discussion.
All the parties are playing their assigned roles. President Obama has spoken at American University and has met with a selected group of journalists, some friendly to his position, some less so. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sent strong (disapproving) signals to his allies in the United States, especially in Congress. And the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has been besieging Capitol Hill to tell members of Congress on which side, come next election, their political bread is really buttered. Many senior former US government officials and ambassadors have endorsed the JCPOA; others have criticized it. Scientists have weighed in on one side or the other.
The process resembles what I called, at the end of the 1960s on Vietnam, the “cairn theory” of debate. Each new participant in the debate adds a stone to one cairn or the other. The merits of the arguments are politically meaningless: the side with the highest pile of stones wins!
But for all the commentary in the media and elsewhere—by presidential candidates, on every television news show and newspaper op-ed page, and in almost all the nation’s blogs—only one audience matters: Congress. And the US legislative body will respond not to rational discussion but to political pressures, only some of which will come from constituents back home who are bombarded with opposing arguments (most of which will just be “tuned out.”). All of the public commentary is the necessary kabuki of American democracy, however irrelevant it may be to the outcome—including, let me admit, my own contribution in support of the JCPOA!
The final result may still be in doubt, though my bet is that the president will prevail. Few members of congress will defy the commander-in-chief when the issue is about national security and when the lives of young American service personnel could be put at risk, however much Obama’s opponents portray his reasoning as tendentious.
Before the final result comes in, however, there are some lessons to be learned.
Winners and Losers
The United States ultimately loses something, both in its own politics and even more in US standing in the world, when Americans divide fundamentally along party lines regarding matters of critical foreign policy and security interest. Even if Obama “wins,” the United States is already doomed to “lose” something inestimable in the eyes of others, friend and foe alike, in failing to demonstrate not just a common sense of purpose on this one matter, the Iranian nuclear program, but also that we know how to pursue our national interests in the vast and tormented territory that is the Middle East. Who can honestly argue that, in the decade since the extremely ill-advised US plunge into war in Iraq, we are “better off,” both in the region and in our standing in the world in general? Who can seriously argue that either the George W. Bush or Barack Obama administrations put together a coherent set of policies regarding the region with a chance of being effective, not just for US interests but also those of friends and allies?
Had President Obama done a better job of reaching out on these and other issues, to both supporters and opponents alike, he would not now be looking like a latter-day Woodrow Wilson, whose inadequacy in engaging the Congress and the nation meant that approval of the League of Nations never had a sporting chance. Unlike Wilson, Obama is likely to prevail, at least on this one issue. But if he had not run the most isolated White House of all Democratic administrations, getting approval for the JCPOA would almost certainly be easier than it is proving to be, if not a “slam dunk.”
But all that milk has been spilled, even though serious, knowledgeable people warned for years that it would happen.
A further lesson from the current imbroglio is that the classic tension between the executive and Congress on foreign affairs, what Edwin Corwin called the US Constitution’s “invitation to struggle,” is even further from resolution than it was when the Iran issue was joined. This also includes an underlying tension regarding the extent to which the United States is better or worse off by pursuing its interests and purposes abroad primarily through military power as opposed to increased use of alternatives. The president said at West Point that “Just because we have the best [military] hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” and at American University that America’s getting into the war in Iraq involved “…a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy.”
But like his two immediate predecessors, Obama has done nothing to shift the balance away from the military through investment in other instruments of power and influence. At the same time, government bodies like the National Defense University and the Foreign Service Institute have cut back their research and training programs necessary to give military officers and civilian officials the knowledge of regional affairs that is critical for successful US activities abroad.
The intercession of the Israeli prime minister in the US debate on Iran, unprecedented in our history, also raises a difficult and delicate set of issues concerning the extent to which American citizens should properly be influenced by pressures exerted from abroad. There is already pushback, however, including from many of Israel’s strong supporters here, just as there are misgivings among much of Israel’s security establishment that Netanyahu has gone too far in directly challenging Obama. They understand that Israel gains nothing and risks much if the United States and its president are weakened.
The Middle East as Mess
The most important lesson, however, is that the end of the current debate—even assuming that President Obama prevails—cannot ensure that the United States will be “home and dry” in the Middle East. To crib from Winston Churchill, accepting the JCPOA may not even be the end of the beginning. Nor is the future to be determined just by whether Iran fulfills its end of the bargain or even by whether it mellows in its relationship to the outside world, including a scaling-back of support for Hezbollah. President Obama’s big bet on Iran is implicitly predicated on such a mellowing, however much the White House plays it down.
Regardless, the region will continue to be a mess, for want of a better word. The United States will have to decide many things in the near future.
One is how important the future of Afghanistan is to our national security. If the answer is “greater than zero,” what outcome would be acceptable, what countries should we seek as partners, how long should we be engaged, and how can we stop Pakistan, in particular, from destabilizing the country?
Another is finally to tell Saudi Arabia and some other Sunni states to stop—full stop, and now!— their toleration for the export of terrorism, in the form of Wahhabi inspiration, along with financing for weapons. This support is a direct assault on the interests of the United States and those of its allies and partners as well as a challenge to any hopes for stability in the Middle East.
A third requirement is how to reassure states in the region that Iran’s access to money and its reemergence into the outside world will not lead to new threats and challenges to U.S. friends and allies. But this requires denominating the putative Iranian “threats and challenges” in real terms, which, in the region of the Persian Gulf, are not military. What these countries have to fear from Iran is rather that it is a large, modern, literate, entrepreneurial culture, with an active domestic politics and which has passed through most of the angst of religious fundamentalism that Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf Arab states have not even begun to deal with. This “modernization” deficit puts the Gulf states at a major disadvantage in competing with Iran, and no amount of arms poured into the region will redress it.
A fourth requirement is for the United States to understand that we have nothing to gain by taking sides either in the geopolitical struggles in the region—Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq (in time), Syria (in time), Turkey, and Egypt—or in getting further stuck in the Sunni-Shia hornet’s nest that we stirred up by invading Iraq 12 years ago. Is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad a tyrant who must go? Fine, but who and what will replace him? How is this to be done without making matters even worse? And in pressing for him to go, how do we keep from taking the Sunni side against the region’s Shias, thus immersing ourselves even more deeply in that regional civil war?
The Islamic State and Beyond
And let us not forget the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which has set a new standard for barbarism but which must be defeated by all means necessary, beginning with the demand that Saudis and others stop giving it aid and comfort. All those in the region who stand to lose if IS gains, meaning just about everybody, must come together on this issue. If the US thus has to work with the Iranian “Great Satan,” so be it.
Let us also not forget the future of Egypt and of Libya. Or the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, which remains an open sore in the region and which must be resolved as a sine qua non to peace across the region—even though nothing is possible for the moment.
Finally, the United States must not bear all the regional burden on behalf of the West. Our European allies have at least as much at stake as we do in defeating IS and stopping the spread of other forms of terrorism—look at all the refugees flooding to Europe!—but these allies are pretending that they have no responsibility for what happens in the Middle East.
That is quite an agenda, and it will not wait until the next US president is inaugurated. Unfortunately, as the debate over the JPCOA consumes so much of the oxygen in Washington, there is no evidence that the administration has a plan or even the process and people to get a plan to deal with what must be done next. That work, already so late in being set in motion, needs to start now.