The interim Iran deal sent the usual suspects scurrying to their regular battle stations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Republican leaders, and conservative skeptics denounced the accord too hysterically as blind appeasement that betrayed Israel. President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and the New York Times diplomatic amen chorus hailed the agreement too heartily as a breakthrough with Hassan Rouhani’s “moderate” Iran. These predictable responses served up “McDonald’s Politics,” the governmental equivalent of mass-produced, standardized junk food. The Iranian nuclear mess is too important for the Angry Right’s blind fury or the Establishment Left’s diplomatic naivete.
Partisans frequently confuse me. How can American liberals ignore Iranian citizens’ human rights while going soft on terrorism and nuclear proliferation? And how can Israeli conservatives denounce Israel’s strongest ally so vehemently they obscure their own achievement in putting Iran’s nuclearization on the world’s agenda?
Israel’s reaction reflected an embarrassing provincialism and paranoia. In Yediot Achronot, usually-moderate columnists claimed that President Obama hailed the deal at 10:15 pm Washington DC time Saturday night, which was 5:15 AM Israel time, to shape the debate before most Israelis awoke – as if America’s Obamacare-battered president worries more about selling this deal to Israelis than to skeptical Americans. “The Israeli star has fallen from the Stars and Stripes,” some cried – as if Israel, an independent sovereign nation, would ever want to be the fifty-first state, or Obama actually abandoned Israel.
Most mourners missed some obvious American-centered points. Obama desperately wanted a victory after a rough 2013, and after stumbling repeatedly in his desperate quest to engage the Muslim world, particularly Iran. Similarly, Kerry’s presidential ambitions are stirring with every additional mile he clocks, every additional hand he shakes, and every additional agreement he signs. Most veteran Senators look at their mirrors every morning and imagine saluting the handsome visage they see reflected back at them as “Mr. President”; this must be particularly true for the 2004 Democratic nominee who lost by only 3 million out of 121 million votes.
The old cliché that you make peace with your enemy, combined with the unhappy history of Western appeasement, particularly before World War II, frequently evoke skeptical responses to any diplomatic leaps forward. If legislative politics is the art of the possible, forging compromises between squabbling fellow citizens, great diplomacy is often the art of the seemingly impossible, building bridges between hostile nations, in the spirit of the 1979 Israel-Egyptian peace treaty.
Nevertheless, just because Israel may be paranoid does not mean it lacks enemies. Israelis should doubt an Iranian regime that remains an Islamic Mullahocracy which oppresses its own people while exporting terror and threatening the Jewish state. The supposedly moderate Rouhani insisted the deal recognizes Iran’s “right” to maintain an enrichment program, while John Kerry claimed there is no “right to enrich.” Such contradictions helped cement the unpredictable Saudi-Israeli concordance regarding the agreement. Any move that unites those two in shared anxiety requires greater scrutiny.
The deal is flawed, failing to use the sanctions to maximum effect and further broadcasting Obama’s weakness to the world. Given how difficult it will be to restore them if Iran violates its obligations, North Korea style, Iran should have been forced to earn sanctions relief with clearer benchmarks constraining its nuclear program – recognizing that this totalitarian regime has consistently lied.
Obama and Kerry should have negotiated more fiercely – and pitched the deal more skeptically -- highlighting the Mullahs’ compromised credibility, learning from Ronald Reagan how to “trust but verify,” progressing cautiously.
As a diplomat, Obama often seems too eager to deal, too gullible, too tough on allies, too soft on enemies, and these days, too anxious for a big win to overcompensate for other losses. In the Arab world, despite his Muslim outreach, Obama has alienated Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni powers who have long been America’s close if problematic allies. Obama also frequently telegraphs a disdain for Israeli policy and an insensitivity to Israeli fears, despite his emphatic statements supporting Israel and the powerful imagery he evoked when visiting Jerusalem. It is bad when the President of the United States handles Arab allies so clumsily and looks so exasperated so frequently when dealing with America’s closest friend in the Middle East, Israel.
Israel too should have played this more cleverly. Even while lobbying furiously against the unacceptable surrenders in private, publicly, Netanyahu should have emphasized the global coalition his leadership helped forge, while stressing the positive outcome he helped trigger wherein Iran at least committed to slowing its long rush toward nuclear power. Subtler gamesmanship, meaning cautious statesmanship, would have worked better, especially with this administration at this moment. A Machiavellian would have trusted the Iranians to fail during this six month interim interval, rather than falling into the trap where anti-Zionists and European appeasers can brand Israel the obstacle to peace.
Totalitarian treachery is once again exploiting Western gullibility, repeating North Korea’s success in developing nuclear weaponry and Iran’s success in becoming a formidable world force despite the regime’s many crimes. But just as McDonald’s hamburgers provide temporary pleasure, followed by harmful calories that linger, McDonald’s Politics provides partisans their expected temporary high while perpetuating toxic dynamics that last.
America’s president should up the pressure on Iran, while reassuring his Israeli friends with an unexpected gesture such as freeing Jonathan Pollard – especially considering how much spying American does on its allies. Simultaneously, Israel’s Prime Minister should drop the public dueling, not only to take credit for pushing the world regarding Iran further than most predicted five years ago – but to help Americans and Europeans see the Iran issue as a threat to them and the world, not just a problem facing Israelis and their newly-discovered Saudi friends.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!