Obama's speech yesterday in support of the Iran deal had one obvious structure: taking on objections to the deal point-by-point, in substantive detail. It had a parallel thematic structure: opposing the tradition of American multilateral diplomacy to the drum-beating of hegemonists, proponents of preemptive war.
Casting himself in the former tradition, which he portrayed as the longstanding consensus position of U.S. foreign policy, he repeatedly invoked first Kennedy and then Reagan, intertwining the words and deeds of both. On the hegemonist side, he invoked one counterfactual and one actual disaster: first-strike proponents against the Soviets, and Iraq war proponents, whom he linked to opponents of the Iran deal.
Aligning himself with the Cold War nuclear arms negotiators, Obama stressed two points of contrast and one of continuity: the Soviet Union was an exponentially more dangerous adversary, the U.S. had to give up far more in negotiations with them, and in negotiating arms deals, the U.S. had to cordon off non-nuclear points of conflict.
He laid down the basic contrast between hegemonists and diplomacists at the outset. My italics below.
Fifty-two years ago, President Kennedy, at the height of the Cold War, addressed this same university on the subject of peace. The Berlin Wall had just been built. The Soviet Union had tested the most powerful weapons ever developed. China was on the verge of acquiring the nuclear bomb. Less than 20 years after the end of World War II, the prospect of nuclear war was all too real.In the tradition of those anticipating "inevitable conflict" with the Soviets, Obama placed the proponents of invading Iraq:
With all of the threats that we face today, it is hard to appreciate how much more dangerous the world was at that time. In light of these mounting threats, a number of strategists here in the United States argued we had to take military action against the Soviets, to hasten what they saw as inevitable confrontation. But the young president offered a different vision.
Strength, in his view, included powerful armed forces and a willingness to stand up for our values around the world. But he rejected the prevailing attitude among some foreign-policy circles that equated security with a perpetual war footing.
Instead, he promised strong, principled American leadership on behalf of what he called a practical and attainable peace, a peace based not on a sudden revolution in human nature, but on a gradual evolution in human institutions, on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements.
Such wisdom would help guide our ship of state through some of the most perilous moments in human history. With Kennedy at the helm, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved peacefully.
Under Democratic and Republican presidents, new agreements were forged: A nonproliferation treaty that prohibited nations from acquiring nuclear weapons, while allowing them to access peaceful nuclear energy, the SALT and START treaties, which bound the United States and the Soviet Union to cooperation on arms control.
Not every conflict was averted, but the world avoided nuclear catastrophe, and we created the time and the space to win the Cold War without firing a shot at the Soviets.
The agreement now reached between the international community and the Islamic Republic of Iran builds on this tradition of strong, principled policy diplomacy.
Now, when I ran for president eight years ago as a candidate who had opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq, I said that America didn't just have to end that war. We had to end the mindset that got us there in the first place.And identified them as leaders of opposition to the Iran deal.
It was a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy, a mindset that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus, a mindset that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported.
Leaders did not level with the American people about the costs of war, insisting that we could easily impose our will on a part of the world with a profoundly different culture and history.
And, of course, those calling for war labeled themselves strong and decisive while dismissing those who disagreed as weak, even appeasers of a malevolent adversary.
For the last couple of weeks, I have repeatedly challenged anyone opposed to this deal to put forward a better, plausible alternative. I have yet to hear one. What I've heard instead are the same types of arguments that we heard in the run up to the Iraq war. "Iran cannot be dealt with diplomatically." "We can take military strikes without significant consequences." "We shouldn't worry about what the rest of the world thinks, because once we act, everyone will fall in line." "Tougher talk, more military threats will force Iran into submission." "We can get a better deal."The opponents are out of step not only with the tradition established by Kennedy but with its continuation by Reagan:
I know it's easy to play in people's fears, to magnify threats, to compare any attempt at diplomacy to Munich, but none of these arguments hold up. They didn't back in 2002, in 2003, they shouldn't now.
That same mind set in many cases offered by the same people, who seem to have no compunction with being repeatedly wrong...
... lead to a war that did more to strengthen Iran, more to isolate the United States than anything we have done in the decades before or since. It's a mind set out of step with the traditions of American foreign policy where we exhaust diplomacy before war and debate matters of war and peace in the cold light of truth.
"Peace is not the absence of conflict," President Reagan once said. It is the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means. President Kennedy warned Americans not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than the exchange of threats. It is time to apply such wisdom. The deal before us doesn't bet on Iran changing, it doesn't require trust, it verifies and requires Iran to forsake a nuclear weapon.In step with "the traditions of American foreign policy" is his own multilateralism:
Keep in mind, unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran had been in place for decades, but had failed to pressure Iran to the negotiating table. What made our new approach more effective was our ability to draw upon new U.N. Security Council resolutions, combining strong enforcement with voluntary agreements for nations like China and India, Japan and South Korea, to reduce their purchases of Iranian oil, as well as the imposition by our European allies of a total oil embargo.As a result of that painstaking diplomacy, he had in his pocket a strong vote of confidence:
Winning this global buy-in was not easy. I know; I was there. In some cases, our partners lost billions of dollars in trade because of their decision to cooperate. But we were able to convince them that, absent a diplomatic resolution, the result could be war with major disruptions to the global economy, and even greater instability in the Middle East.
In other words, it was diplomacy, hard, painstaking diplomacy, not saber rattling, not tough talk, that ratcheted up the pressure on Iran.
So this deal is not just the best choice among alternatives, this is the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated, and because this is such a strong deal, every nation in the world that has commented publicly, with the exception of the Israeli government,* has expressed support. The United Nations Security Council has unanimously supported it. The majority of arms control and nonproliferation experts support it. Over 100 former ambassadors who served under Republican and Democratic presidents support it.And the core contrast is between real strength and posturing:
But how can we, in good conscience, justify war before we've tested a diplomatic agreement that achieves our objectives, that has been agreed to by Iran, that is supported by the rest of the world and that preserves our option if the deal falls short? How could we justify that to our troops? How could we justify that to the world or to future generations? In the end, that should be a lesson that we've learned from over a decade of war. On the front end, ask tough questions, subject our own assumptions to evidence and analysis, resist the conventional wisdom and the drumbeat of war, worry less about being labeled weak, worry more about getting it right.That last is a converse of Obama's signature 2002 "I'm not against all wars, I'm against dumb wars." As Daniel Larison asserted in a post praising the gist of the speech, Obama has fought or supported more than one 'dumb war' of his own. In that too he's in the tradition of Kennedy and Reagan. But militarism among U.S. presidents is relative, the tradition of multilateral leadership is real, and Obama situated the Iran deal squarely within it.
A subtext, perhaps in part my own, is that George W. Bush was an outlier, and that the current crop of Republican candidates all promise to be even more extreme hegemonists.
* Note that Obama excepted "the Israeli government" rather than Israel per se. That's a deliberate distinction, as the grammatically parallel contrast with "every nation in the world" would be a nation. Though the deal is opposed across the Israeli political spectrum, there is substantial acceptance of it in Israeli military and intelligence leadership.