Iran Nuclear Deal a Product of Bush and Obama

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Barack Obama wanted his current job bad enough to elbow Hillary Clinton aside to get it—and to run a nasty campaign against Mitt Romney to keep it—so I don’t feel sorry for him. Yet it’s clear that he thinks he’s presiding over a diminished franchise.

On Wednesday, the president came to the East Room to explain why he believes so fervently in his administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. Inquiring minds wanted to know: How can you trust a nation that bombs synagogues in other countries, sponsors terrorism in its own region, threatens to annihilate Israel, and imprisons American civilians for no reason at all? 

Maybe we can’t, the president said. But the only alternative is war. It was slightly discordant: Obama was making a strong argument in favor of the proposition that America is weak. Similar dissonance was on display when CBS White House correspondent Major Garrett asked Obama why he was “content” to leave four Americans captive in Iran instead of making them part of the deal. Badly phrased, as Garrett later conceded, but a valid question. Obama flashed in anger, but his answer was that he hadn’t insisted on Iran’s freeing American hostages because he didn’t think he had the power to do so.

This passive streak was also in evidence when he was asked whether he’d revoke Bill Cosby’s presidential Medal of Freedom. Obama spoke forthrightly against rape, but prefaced his answer by saying: “There is no precedent for revoking a medal. We don’t have that mechanism.”

Watching that, I had a WWLBJD moment—wondering what Lyndon Johnson would do. Revoke the medal on the spot, maybe? The more instructive point is that it was George W. Bush who put that medal around Cosby’s neck in the first place. That’s the real sticking point with the Obama administration: what he was bequeathed by his predecessor. 

In discussing Iran, Obama never said Tehran had promised to change its behavior. He acknowledged that Iran might use the economic windfall headed its way by increasing its nefarious activities. He hopes they won’t, but he offered no promises. He also tacitly conceded that Iran might cheat and lie and evade weapons inspectors. That’s not a problem, he insists, because if they do, the United States can simply reinstate economic sanctions on Iran. 

That seems unlikely, given that four of the five nations that brokered this deal along with the United States—China, Russia, France, and Germany—covet their lost business opportunities in Iran, and would balk at bringing back sanctions. Thus did a process that began as a way of ensuring that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons and export terrorism evolve into one that recognizes Iran as a regional power and tacitly accepts as inevitable that it will acquire nuclear arms someday—just not while Obama is president.

So who’s to blame for this?

One culprit is Obama’s world view. Multi-nationalism sounds good in theory, but in real life it means no one is accountable. Regarding Iran, the president expressed the wish that the nuclear deal could lead to more harmony in the region generally. “My hope,” he said, “is that building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative, to operate the way we expect nations in the international community to behave. But we’re not counting on it.”

That level of optimism is reminiscent of the previous Oval Office occupant. Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the most knowledgeable journalists about the Mideast, put the problem this way: “I’m not sure, based on my last conversation with Obama,” Goldberg wrote, “that he fully understands the depth of the regime’s anti-Semitism, in part because the regime’s anti-Semitism is so absurdly offensive and illogical that the hyper-rational Obama might not believe that serious people actually think the way certain Iranians think.” 

That, too, is reminiscent of George W. Bush, but the problem is much deeper than the two presidents’ excessive faith in their fellow man. The reason Barack Obama felt he had to take military force against Iran off the table is because Bush invaded the wrong country. That’s the reason, just as much as Obama’s internationalist impulses, that the current president’s foreign policy options are so limited.

Three months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, a colleague on the White House beat returned from a briefing with administration officials with stunning news. “They’re going to invade Iraq,” she said matter-of-factly.

 “Do you mean Iran?” I asked. 

“I know the difference,” she replied. “It’s Iraq.”

Around the same time, country-and-western crooner Alan Jackson produced a poignant number about Americans’ reactions to 9/11 that included the lines: 

I’m just a singer of simple songs

I’m not a real political man

I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell

You the difference in Iraq and Iran…” 

The narrator is not a simple man: his song is powerful paean to empathy. It contrasted starkly with another iconic country song from that era, Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” Keith’s son is an angry one—the word “angry” is in the subtitle—and nothing less than a war anthem. It’s hard not to see Bush as Toby Keith—and Toby played at Bush rallies on military bases—while equating Obama to Alan Jackson. A better metaphor is that medal President Bush hung around Bill Cosby’s neck, the medal President Obama is somehow expected to retrieve. 

The reason Obama took war with Iran off the table—thus leading him to embrace this dubious nuclear deal—is because he can’t invade Iran. Neither America’s foreign allies nor U.S. domestic public opinion would support it, and the overstretched U.S. military isn’t in shape to pull it off. Moreover, the United States may need Iran as a collaborator in the fight against ISIS, an entity which grew out of the wreckage in Iraq and Syria that both Bush and Obama helped create.

So that’s the fix we’re in. The incumbent president, who has trouble allowing for honest differences of opinion, says that anyone who looks “at the facts” will agree with him about the efficacy of this nuclear deal with Iran. He means that to sound reassuring, but I find it unnerving. The previous president possessed just this kind of certitude, and he led us into the very thicket Obama is trying to negotiate—and with fewer tools at his disposal than his predecessor.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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