Why HistoryGives Obama the Benefit of the Doubt on the Iran Deal

U.S. presidents of both parties have often shown better judgment in knowing when to accept diplomatic solutions than in choosing to go to war.

The Atlantic - James Fallowes
On Friday, The Atlantic ran an exchange of views among Jeffrey Goldberg, Peter Beinart, and David Frum about the plusses and minuses of the new Iran deal.
To oversimplify: Peter Beinart thought the deal was more good than bad, David Frum thought it was nearly all bad, and Jeffrey Goldberg could see merits on both sides but thought on balance that the deal might be the best of flawed alternatives.
In case you’ve been wondering what the debate would have been like with four participants, wonder no more. And if you’re wondering why I care, given that the Mideast is not my normal beat, here’s why:
— There’s a backward-looking reason: I’ve been interested in Iran since I first visited in the 1970s. Also, I worked for a president whose final two years were wrapped up with, and ultimately destroyed by, the effects of the Iranian Revolution; who believed deeply in nuclear non-proliferation; and who probably would have been reelected if not for his failed “Desert One” mission to rescue American hostages in Iran—some of whom I knew.

— There’s a forward-looking reason too: In the years since the foreseeably disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq, the next-most frequently discussed potential arena for U.S. combat has been Iran. For reasons I laid out in an Atlantic cover story back in 2004, I contend that anyone who has looked at the realities understands that the fantasy of a successful “preemptive” strike against Iran has always been pure, reckless fantasy, an extension of the “cakewalk” delusions that led us into the Iraq War. Moreover, from the American perspective I argue that there is far more to gain than lose in strategies to bring Iran in from its pariah status. (For more on the argument, see the Iran postings collected here, and this.)
To oversimplify my hypothetical fourth-man argument: If I were in the debate I would have agreed with Peter Beinart, completely disagreed with David Frum, and agreed most heartily with the parts of Jeffrey Goldberg’s writing in which he was agreeing with Beinart.
I’d go further. On reflection, I think this is a far better deal than most rational observers thought obtainable—especially considering that “our side’s” negotiators included not simply the U.S. and its normal Western allies but Russia and China as well. I also think that the agreement does more to avert a nuclear-armed Iran than any real-world (not tough-talk fantasy-world) alternative would do.
I know this won’t be the case, but in the upcoming congressional debate I think the burden of proof should be on the opponents to explain what arrangements, in the real world, would have done more to advance American interests and delay or deter the prospect of Iran getting the bomb.
Let’s consider, briefly, facts and judgments.
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Facts: There is one simple-seeming factual point that President Obama emphasized in his thoroughgoing defense of the Iran deal at his news conferencea few days ago, and that (my one-time professor) Graham Allison has examined in even more thoroughgoing fashion hereherehere, and here. That point is: If you don’t like this deal, what’s your better idea?

More specifically: What is your better real-world idea, one that could actually come about, not your applause line for a speech or your snappy summary on a cable-TV hit?
Most of the “Oh, we should have been tougher—that would have done the trick!” rhetoric, including David Frum’s in this Atlantic exchange, abstracts away from several realities. Of these, the most important is that the U.S. can’t get its way just because Tom Cotton, Lindsey Graham, Bill Kristol, or Ted Cruz thinks it should (as Peter Beinart argued here). Iran is smaller, weaker, and poorer than the United States. But that doesn’t mean it will just accede—a lesson the United States might have learned from its dealings with Vietnam, Cuba, and various Middle Eastern states over the years. Negotiations are what both sides agree to, not what tough guys on one side think that side should demand.
Moreover, Russia and China, while somewhat poor in per-capita terms, are very far from small and weak. The most amazing part of U.S. debate on this deal is how rarely anyone notices that Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, the opposite of strategic allies of the United States right now, have been shoulder to shoulder with the Western negotiating team so far. Is the thought that because an American hardliner, or for that matter one from Israel, tells them they’re too lily-livered, they’ll suddenly snap to? That’s an argument you might make on a talk show or in an op-ed, but not if you’ve dealt with either country.
For more on the facts, apart from Graham Allison’s careful parsing of the deal, I direct you to the roundtable of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (E.g. from Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos Labs: “Much hard work lies ahead to make it a historic opportunity. Even so, the Iran nuclear deal was hard-won and is better than any other reasonably achievable alternative.” Or from Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at CSIS: “The Vienna agreement with Iran ... is a lumbering, 159-page tome of historic dimensions. ... Still, the level of detail, nuance, and overlapping obligations is impressive. Some of the details are astonishing.”—which she means in a good way. Or from Kingston Reif, of the Arms Control Association: “Many observers, including this author, doubted whether such an agreement could be reached. While a final judgment on the deal must await its implementation, what has been achieved to date is remarkable and historic.”) Or consider this analysis from the Molad institute about why the deal is more advantageous for Israel than any real-world alternative. Or this from Steven Metz.
Maybe these people are wrong. But if so, let’s hear some details of a better approach. Let’s hear a realistic alternative. Rather than, “Oh, that Obama is so weak. He just should have been strong.

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Judgment: Of course, provable facts take us only so far into the future. Judgment about appropriate risks and rewards inevitably comes into play. And here I argue: The historical balance weighs very heavily against the judgment of those opposing the deal. Those who have lined up against similar deals, in the past, have usually been wrong. This doesn’t prove that opponents are wrong now, but it’s worth thinking about.
I’m not even talking about recent historical judgment concerning this same part of the world. Virtually every opponent of the new Iran deal was also a proponent of invading Iraq 12 years ago. In both cases, Iraq and Iran, the very same people thought that the threat was imminent and grave, that diplomacy was ineffective, and that a hard line was called for. This group notably included David Frum, who at the time was a speechwriter for George W. Bush. (Before you ask: I was a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter while the movement to overthrow the shah was gaining momentum in 1978.)
So far, I have found exactly two public figures who have opposed or questioned the Iran deal and who did not also support the Iraq War: They are Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and, disappointingly, former-Senator-now-presidential-candidate Jim Webb of Virginia. In all other cases, people who are alarmist about Iran in 2015 are the same ones who were alarmist about Iraq in 2003.
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The more important point about judgment concerns the long record of agreements of this sort. Many of them have been controversial; some have been enacted and some have not. But in most cases, I contend, the skeptical opponents have been proven, by history, to have been wrong. Let’s consider: There has been one major case in which the proponents of diplomacy were proven naive, the advocates of a tougher line were right, and the talk of compromise ended in ashes. That was of course Munich in 1938.
If you think that every adversary is Hitler’s Nazi Germany, that every pro-negotiation Western diplomat is Neville Chamberlain, and that every hardline opponent is Winston Churchill, then you’re likely to see every negotiated agreement as a mistake. But consider a few other examples:
The League of Nations vote, 1920: Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and his allies campaigned ferociously against Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy of American entry into the League of Nations after World War I. The opponents won; the League of Nations entry failed; a bitter and vengeful peace of Versailles, minus U.S. participation, followed. Might the history of 1930s Europe have been different otherwise? Who knows. But I don’t find any historian of the era saying, Thank God for the foresight of Henry Cabot Lodge.

The partial test-ban treaty, 1963: A few months after the modern world’s closest brush with nuclear disaster, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of of 1962, John Kennedy gave his famous speech at American University urging negotiations with the Soviet Union to reduce the nuclear threat. The main result was an agreement in the summer of 1963 to ban atmospheric nuclear tests. Barry Goldwater based part of his rise to the Republican nomination in 1964 on his opposition to this “dangerous” treaty. On this, as on some other points, Goldwater was wrong.
The Panama Canal treaty, 1978: Jesse Helms, already a senator from North Carolina, became a national figure through his opposition to the treaty that transferred operational control of the canal to Panama. Strom Thurmond, then a senator from South Carolina, said that it would lead to the communist encirclement of the United States. Negotiations for the transfer had actually begun under Gerald Ford, but they were frozen during the 1976 election because of Republican Party criticism. Jimmy Carter completed the treaty (I was there, in Panama, for the transfer ceremony) and got it through the Senate. The Republicans made it a campaign issue in 1978 and 1980. Every one of their fears and warnings has proven wrong.
Law of the Sea Treaty1960s-onward: The United States participated in the drafting of a Law of the Sea treaty, but for the usual reasons has never ratified it. E.g., Jeane Kirkpatrick, the Reagan administration’s UN ambassador, said duringthe George W. Bush administration that “it was a bad bargain,” and that “its ratification will diminish our capacity for self-government, including, ultimately, our capacity for self-defense.” Now some 160+ other nations have ratified the treaty, but not the United States—and one perverse result is to deny one grounds for protest against China’s expansion into the South and East China Seas. Without going into all the details, the treaty opponents look as wise as Henry Cabot Lodge.
Some other treaties of the Cold War era, notably the ABM treaty and the Salt I and Salt II treaties of the 1970s, now seem enmeshed in the arcana of that era (though I remember taking part in heated debates on all of them). Here’s the point: Looking back, very few people could say that they represented irresponsible, naively gullible deals with the enemy. And virtually no one would say that about the Non-Proliferation Treaty of the 1960s.

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Let’s raise this to a higher principle. In modern times, executive-branch judgment in decisions to go to war has often been flawed. In two consequential cases—a Democratic administration’s judgment about going to war in Vietnam, and a Republican administration’s judgment about invading Iraq—the result, more than mere flaw, was strategic disaster.
But for Republican and Democratic administrations alike, judgment about accepting the risks of negotiated agreement has generally proven sound. The one gross counter-example is Munich. But to state the obvious: That wasn’t an American agreement; it involved the unique evils of Hitler and Nazism; and it was nearly 80 years ago. Counting examples from modern American diplomacy, even with full skepticism about abuse of executive power, there are more reasons to trust administrations’ judgment about treaties than to mistrust them.
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We’ll hear the case, we’ll consider the arguments, we’ll allow for the unknown. But on the facts, it would be good to hear a better alternative from people who oppose the deal. And on judgment, for now the benefit of the doubt is with the administration rather than its critics.