Back in February 2003 my wife and I joined twenty other Americans standing on the corner near my small Virginia town’s only traffic light to hold up signs protesting the impending invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces. Some drivers honked approval and waved while others flipped us off. Two years later, after the war had devolved into an occupation, we joined a quarter of a million demonstrators in Washington D.C., demanding an end to the killing that had characterized the George W. Bush’s “global war on terror” (GWOT). It was the first and only time I have marched for peace. I was not particularly surprised to note on the following day that the neocon Washington Post had decided not to cover the event.
Coming from a family that had sent its men off to fight in every war since World War One and having myself been drafted for Vietnam, I have long esteemed America’s citizen soldiers, which is not to say I believe in the legitimacy of the wars that have sucked them in and killed them in large numbers. During Vietnam I noted that many of my college classmates were anti-war solely because of concern for their own well-being, not because they had any deep understanding of or interest in what might be at stake in Southeast Asia. Little did they care for what was happening to the Vietnamese people or to the Americans sent to kill them. After my time in the Army, passed relatively painlessly in Berlin, I spent seventeen years with the CIA, mostly overseas. So I am not by nature anti-war and accept that a certain level of conflict is part and parcel of the human DNA, but there was something particularly awful about Iraq, a war that was largely engineered by a small group of chickenhawk neoconservatives in the Pentagon and White House contrary to any actual American interests.
The debate over Iraq produced what might be described as a tectonic shift in terms of how the United States saw itself. An America which had been intermittently engaged in wars all around the globe under the perhaps misleading pretext that they were temporary blips on the screen had been transformed after 9/11 into a nation possessed of steely resolve where war would be a permanent state both in theory and practice. Iraq would be the first step in transforming the entire Middle East, “draining the cesspit” as the neocons preferred to describe it. The actual terrorist threat against the United States was magnified far beyond reality and came to dominate the thinking of the nation’s elites. The ascent of an “anti-war” Democrat to the White House changed nothing with the global conflict expanding to Libya and Yemen, continuing to follow the trail blazed by George W. Bush, though the GWOT has been euphemistically relabeled “overseas contingency operations.”
But along the way something unusual happened. After the Obama Administration had successfully helped engineer a “humanitarian” regime change in Libya, an intervention that proved disastrous both for the Libyan people and for American interests, it again played the same card. The White House, ignoring warnings from the intelligence community, resorted to the time honored practice of deceptively framing some particularly dodgy information about what was allegedly happening in Syria. The Administration and many hawks in Congress jumped on board, claiming that “red lines” had been crossed, and calling for direct American intervention in what was a civil war. Few were observant enough to point out that it was like pouring gasoline on a fire, using armed force in an attempt to resolve a conflict that actually had come about because of the invasion of Iraq and other ill-advised moves directed against the Syrian regime. The cruise missiles were primed to launch when, to the surprise of nearly everyone, the public opposition to the proposed escalation of yet another war in Asia was immediate and extreme, forcing the White House to back down.
Obama, for all his faults as a leader, apparently did read at least some of the tea leaves after correcting course on Syria. He decided that the ongoing confrontation with Iran served no purpose and could be resolved by diplomacy rather than another war. He put all his eggs in that basket and persevered in spite of persistent attacks from Republicans and neoconservatives while the process was unfolding.
The debate over Iran has indeed opened up a great divide between those who look to purely military solutions to the world’s problems and those who do not. It also demonstrated the fundamental intellectual emptiness of the purveyors of America the Warlike while the sheer ignorance of the opposition to the deal has itself been revealing. Senator Rand Paul for example, who many had hoped would be a voice of reason in the GOP, signed on to a Senator Tom Cotton letter maintaining that an incoming Republican president could and should revoke any Obama “executive agreement” with Iran. Paul then followed up with an assertion that diplomacy must always be backed up by the threat of military force. In so doing he revealed that he understands neither diplomacy nor the appropriate use of the military. Diplomacy is a process in which negotiators exploit common ground to gradually expand the areas in which one might find agreement. It is never intended to achieve 100% of one’s objectives but it is instead designed to produce a result that benefits everyone involved. The military meanwhile, according to the Constitution, exists to defend the United States against direct threats to its territorial integrity, not to force compliance from foreign regimes that do not pose a threat.
Last Wednesday’s Obama speech defending the agreement subtly made the point that America should perhaps go about its foreign policy differently. To be sure, he exaggerated when describing a failure to ratify the agreement as inevitably leading to war as the rest of the world will choose to ignore whatever Washington decides and it will be business as usual with Tehran. The speech was also replete with the usual bromides about “our dear friend and ally” Israel as well as a dangle of yet more money for Tel Aviv and careful avoidance of any mention of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal. It also chose to ignore completely Benjamin Netanyahu’s blatant interference in our political process, both through his own outrageous direct address to America’s Jewish community and through his current hosting of 58 Congressmen on a visit to Israel where they will be shamelessly lied to and cajoled.
But for the first time Obama spoke about American interests trumping those of Israel, that it would be an “abrogation of his constitutional responsibility” to behave otherwise. He also called out the neoconservatives explicitly and Israel Lobby implicitly, even though somewhat elliptically, stating that the same crowd that demanded war with Iraq is doing it again, that they have a “preference for military action over diplomacy.” He concluded by asking the American public to tell their representatives what kind of country they want to have, good advice indeed.
The neocon reaction to Obama was immediate. Some websites labeled him an anti-Semite. Three prominent Jewish congressmen Senator Chuck Schumer and Representatives Eliot Engel and Brad Sherman announced that they would oppose the agreement. Schumer, who has described himself as the Senate’s “guardian for Israel,” expects to become the Senate minority leader next year in spite of his apparent conflicted loyalty.
There was also a push from the neocon dominated media. On Friday the Washington Post published no less than four op-eds attacking the deal, by Charles Krauthammer, Michael Gerson, Ray Takeyh and David Ignatius. The New York Times ran a front page story suggesting that Obama had gone too far in his criticism of AIPAC. It also featured a completely ridiculous op-ed by its token (neo)conservative David Brooks, claiming that “Iran is a fanatical, hegemonic, hate-filled regime” that had with the agreement “won” a war against the United States. Minus the “hegemonic” the vitriol would be better applied to Israel. In publishing the piece, the Times failed to disclose Canadian-born Brooks’s well attested own passionate attachment to Israel and that his son is serving in the Israeli Defense Forces.
Obama was inevitably careful in his critique of who is behind the war party and I personally would have liked him to put some teeth into his comments by immediately afterwards firing the State Department’s Victoria Nuland to demonstrate that he was serious. And, of course, he inevitably avoided indicting his own liberal interventionists who have inadvertently both aided and expanded the neocon agenda: Susan Rice at the White House and Samantha Power at the United Nations.
The agreement with Iran can nevertheless be rightly seen as a potential turning point, just as momentous as the events post 9/11 that led to the move to the dark side followed by the disastrous war with Iraq. It is a concession that the United States can obtain most of what it wants without bombing or killing anyone and that Washington does not have to be at war with everyone forever. But if Obama is beaten on this make no mistake it will be a catastrophic defeat of the President of the United States inflicted by the Israel Lobby and we can look forward to years more of Middle Eastern wars on behalf of Netanyahu and his extremist friends. And no president will ever again dare to challenge Israel, meaning that U.S. foreign policy will be permanently outsourced to a foreign country. This is why the outcome is critically important and it is why I and many like-minded individuals keep talking and writing about it even though we have all become somewhat Iran-fatigued.
So I will continue to pester my audience in favor of the Iran agreement at least until our Congress votes on the issue in September. It is an opportunity not to be missed, not only for the sake of the bilateral relationship with Iran but also for its final rejection of neocon foreign policy. It might also signify that America the Warlike could be reconsidering the consequences of its past fifteen years of folly and may be ready to begin bringing its soldiers home.