The Obama presidency has greatly disappointed supporters who view the President as being too aloof and for losing his progressive focus. The best rebuttal to these complaints is to read — or better yet watch — the President’s speech in Selma honoring those who were beaten by Alabama state troopers while demonstrating for their right to vote fifty years ago. In this place, on this anniversary, Obama’s words echoed powerfully, part Church sermon, part civics lesson — a reminder of how he won the presidency despite long odds. Seven years later, intractable problems and relentless opposition have turned his hair gray. His commitment to many causes has not wavered, but his passion has been applied selectively.
At Selma, Obama was the best he could be. A second chorus of criticism is that Obama is not a master of the legislative process, twisting arms, building bridges and framing terms of debate. The result has been gridlock on Capitol Hill. In other words, he’s not Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose string of domestic legislative accomplishments was second only to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Supporters yearn for Obama to be the LBJ captured in photographs of him towering over and browbeating Senator John Pastore. One of these photos hangs in President Frank Underwood’s Oval Office in “House of Cards,” evoking this fictional President’s brutal powers of persuasion.
Nobody will confuse Obama for LBJ, but the Grand Old Party of the 1960s was a different breed than the Republican Caucus today. LBJ’s nemesis and foil, 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, famously said during his nomination speech that, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The current Republican vernacular holds that, “Extremism in opposition to Obama is no vice. And moderation in pursuit of bipartisanship is no virtue.”
Obama’s cool demeanor on all but a few issues belies his commitment, now evident in his pursuit of an agreement with Iran that constrains its bomb-making capability in verifiable ways. This intention has prompted extreme measures by Republicans on Capitol Hill. Forty-seven Republican Senators signed an “open letter” making common cause with Iranian hardliners opposed to an agreement, following on Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver a speech before Congress depicting Obama as a modern day Neville Chamberlain. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not previously known as an acute observer of the American scene, characterized the Republican senatorial missive as “a sign of a decline in political ethics and the destruction of the American establishment from within.”
The open letter and Netanyahu’s speech did not spell out an effective way to block Iran’s path to the bomb. If these Senators and Netanyahu were more candid, they would acknowledge that the only way to achieve their agenda is through military strikes rather than negotiations. In this event, Iran would have far more reason to build a stockpile of nuclear weapons as quickly as possible.
If Members of Congress who favor an agreement were candid, they would acknowledge that it will weaken global norms for non-proliferation. If, however, the Congress kills a deal that effectively constrains Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the consequences for proliferation will be far worse.
Congress, like Obama, is in a bind. Both are long past the point of closing the barn door on Iran’s enrichment capability. Tehran built this capability during the George W. Bush administration, which rejected diplomatic initiatives to constrain Iranian nuclear capabilities at very low levels. Tehran expanded its capabilities greatly in the Obama administration. At this juncture, the best of a poor set of choices is to limit Iran’s nuclear capability under close scrutiny.
Alternatively, Congress can seek ways to reject or block an agreement, assuming one can be successfully negotiated. The open letter by all but seven Senate Republicans aims to do just this. Rejecting a useful agreement limiting Iran’s capabilities to make nuclear weapons could well lead to the expulsion of international inspectors, increased enrichment and air strikes. Air strikes would lead down many roads, none of which point to safe destinations.
Non-proliferation has taken a hit because Iran’s nuclear facilities are sized for bomb-making rather than electricity. Non-proliferation will take a more severe hit unless these facilities operate at only a small fraction of their capacity. Iran’s neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, have also decided that they must have nuclear power plants – the purported rationale for Iran’s enrichment facilities. Uranium enriched to five per cent, appropriate for generating electricity, is readily available for purchase. Purchasing low-enriched uranium, however, comes with inspectors and safeguards. Enriching uranium to 90 per cent suitable for bombs requires having an unsafeguarded, indigenous capability.
Whether more uranium enrichment plants are built in the Middle East, and whether enrichment occurs under inspection depends, in large measure, on the outcome of these negotiations. The same holds true for the design and safeguards associated with Iran’s Arak research reactor. The spread of unsafeguarded enrichment or reprocessing plants in the Middle East will doom the Non-proliferation Treaty.
An effective agreement will be possible if Iranian leaders see more risk than reward in acquiring nuclear weapons. Opponents of an agreement cannot imagine this to be the case. They are convinced that Iran’s leaders will use the Bomb to backstop their ambitions in the region. Even worse, religious zealots in Iran might not hesitate to start a nuclear war. Just read their threats about burying Israel.
This pessimistic appraisal might be right. It might also be wrong, in which case it would be foolish and tragic to assume the worst and then unwittingly help make it happen. Nikita Khrushchev threated to bury the United States during the Cold War. This threat was taken seriously, but was overtaken by realism and affected by political engagement. The Soviet Union decided that the Bomb was too dangerous a weapon to use. Instead, a succession of Soviet and U.S. leaders agreed to do things that only wishful thinkers could have hoped for: Washington and Moscow agreed to limit, reduce, and even eliminate many of their most powerful weapons and means of delivery. They even agreed not to test nuclear weapons – and haven’t done so for over twenty years.
These achievements, which remain in place even under Vladimir Putin, happened despite the warnings of pessimists who couldn’t envision how geopolitical and ideological adversaries could reach such accommodation. Rewards came to those who took risks for negotiated settlements, while being prepared for the consequences of failure. U.S. negotiations with the Soviet Union and Iran are different in many ways, but alike in how little the two sides can relate to each other. During the Cold War, U.S. war plans were predicated on managing escalation, while the Soviet General Staff disregarded this. The two superpowers nonetheless found common ground and reached accords despite their differences.
How do Iran’s leaders really think about nuclear weapons? Are we to take Iran’s Supreme Leaders literally when they talk about annihilating Israel, but not when they say that the Bomb is an “un-Islamic” weapon? If the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations practiced selective literalism, they wouldn’t have been able to reduce nuclear dangers. The Obama administration seeks to constrain Iran’s nuclear capabilities in ways that can dampen proliferation elsewhere in the Middle East. U.S. interests and those of friends and allies in the region would be better served by limiting Iranian capabilities in verifiable ways than by demanding the impossible, watching sanctions erode, and seeking temporary solutions in bombing runs.
Nuclear dangers have been reduced and our worst nightmares have been avoided, thanks to leaders who were willing to take risks to reach unlikely agreements. The Obama administration and Congress are at this juncture once again. Demanding a say in any agreement that is reached is one thing; torpedoing it is another. An agreement with Iran that effectively constrains its bomb-making ability in verifiable ways is worth trying. Rejecting or blocking such an agreement concedes failure without trying.
Note to readers: A shorter form of this essay ran in Roll Call on March 12th.