The US administration’s strategy of creating simplistic false choices for the complex problems of the Middle East has strained the US-Israeli relationship, and undermined American foreign policy goals in the region. This strategy has lead to fruitless negotiations and weakened the traditional American role for regional conflict management, whether it is in Iran or Syria, or between the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs.
False choices and straw-man arguments are not only manipulative, but usually obfuscate a true debate about what is best for American national interests, which should be based contextual facts. A false choice or straw-man argument presents limited choices to avoid having to defend a vulnerable argument against truly worthy alternatives.
What is a straw-man argument? Here’s how it works. An opponent creates a fallacious and often extreme argument to misrepresent the opposing viewpoint, then easily shoots it down. Meanwhile, you are forced to remain on the defensive.
Closely related is the false-choice argument where you deliberately create a situation to paint your opponent into a corner by claiming only two choices, when in reality there are more realistic options. All rely on misrepresentation, over-simplification, or subtle distortion According to The Washington Post’s opinion writer Ruth Marcus, “a particular Obama specialty is the false false choice. Set up two unacceptable extremes that no one is seriously advocating and position yourself as the champion of the reasonable middle ground between these unidentified straw men.”
On Iran the president and the administration has presented the public with a dangerous false choice.
They repeatedly claim that they would rather accept no nuclear deal with Iran than a bad deal. According to this false-choice strategy, any deal to which the US agrees must be a good deal – by definition.
This is what keeps Israeli leaders up at night. It also greatly troubles many Americans who believe that a nuclear- capable Iran just weeks away from a nuclear weapon is an American national security nightmare. It will endanger our soldiers, increase the chance America will be drawn into battle, and ultimately put American civilians in harm’s way by nuclear proliferation in the very dangerous neighborhood of the ongoing Sunni- Shi’ite regional war.
While 82 bipartisan members of the US Senate asked the president to increase the possibility of future sanctions as a warning to Iran if negotiations collapse, the president created another false choice between only his vision of diplomacy, or a “march to war.” He created a straw man by claiming anyone who disagrees with his approach is a warmonger, i.e. the straw man.
In reality, almost everyone wants a diplomatic solution, just not like the one the P5+1 accepted which conceded far too much and emboldened the Iranians to ask for more concessions.
The problem is further compounded because the president’s diplomatic solution already conceded the Iranian right to enrich, and contradicted 11 UNSC resolutions between 2003-2010, to which even the Russians and Chinese agreed.
Another false choice is the seemingly uncontroversial claim by Susan Rice that “Iran must not get a nuclear weapon.” The false choice is then between Iran possessing a nuclear weapon or not having a nuclear weapon. Who could be for the former? The problem is the administration’s definition of “not having a nuclear weapon” would allow Iran advanced enrichment capabilities, possession of nuclear fissile material, possession of ballistic weapons, while ignoring 25 years of hidden proliferation and weaponization.
The public is totally unaware of this.
To this administration, Iran does not possess a nuclear weapon until the last screw is turned to activate it.
In the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry created a straw-man argument where he has said if Israel does not concede and create a Palestinian state it will become an “apartheid” state. Use of this word is not only incorrect by definition, but is the equivalent of the “N word” in this part of the world. This is a rhetorical device employed to create an extreme and offensive choice to make one’s case.
The onus was placed on Israel but in reality the intransigent party is the Palestinians, who could have had a state six times over the past 76 years.
Another false choice is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is the best leader with whom Israel will ever be able to conclude a peace agreement. Here the straw man is a future Palestinian leader who will be much less accommodating and unwilling to negotiate.
Ignored is that Abbas is in the 10th year of his four-year term, and reigns over a corrupt government which promotes anti-Semitism in all of its officially supported outlets.
The false choice of Israeli acquiescence to Kerry’s pressure ignored the most logical alternative – conflict management, which had been the primary tool of American foreign policy. In Syria and Iraq, the false choice offered is between American boots on the ground or the administration’s diplomacy. Unfortunately, the administration fails to understand it is seen as a toothless superpower.
Another false choice is that if Israel simply removed its settlements in Judea and Samaria, the Palestinians would embrace peace. As Ambassador Aaron David Miller, VP of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars said, if you believe settlements are the primary cause for the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, “I have a bridge over the mighty Jordan River to sell you.”
American foreign policy needs to return to its natural place as a force for good in the world. Its absence on the world stage by leading from behind makes the world a more dangerous place. An America that is engaged and respected in the Middle East not only increases the peace but also makes America safer at home.
The administration needs to be reminded that Israel is an indispensable ally, which if it did not exist would profoundly hurt American intelligence and security interests.
The majority of Americans view Israel in a favorable light and recognize that it not the Palestinian Arabs that are the aggrieved party, but the intransigent one.
The author, an MD, is the founder and director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political and Information Network.