Unraveling the axis of stupid: How Iran deal sends neocons, exceptionalists and Fox News xenophobes to dustbin of history

Let Know Nothings, Tea Party and Trump crowd rail against the deal. They rail against reality, modernity, history

By Patrick L. Smith

Published July 22, 2015 11:01PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Janet Van Ham/Patrick Semansky/Richard Drew/Carlos Barria)
(AP/Reuters/Janet Van Ham/Patrick Semansky/Richard Drew/Carlos Barria)

This Iran deal, sealed a week ago, makes me think of those cruises people take up the Pacific coast into Arctic climes: Everyone stands at the ship’s railings amazed as the icebergs go by, and good enough. But the cold world’s true wonders are unseen beneath the surface.

So it is with the accord governing Iran’s nuclear program, concluded in Vienna last Tuesday after 20 months of arduous talks. There is the seen and the submerged.

On the face of it this pact is a diplomatic stroke up there with Nixon’s opening to China. A dispute a dozen years old is brought peaceably to resolution, and a 36-year breach between Washington and Tehran can begin to mend. The world can now welcome the Islamic Republic back into the community of nations. Into the bin, at last, with that contemptible “axis of evil” rubbish Bush II forced the Western alliance to pretend to take seriously.

But keep your places at the railing, for President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have an iceberg to show us—the whole thing this time. Here come 60 days of theater and 60 days of history in one big lump. We will finish up in September, when Congress is to vote on the accord, wisened, moved and delighted all at once.

This may strike some readers as a precipitous. It was instantly plain that the right-wing majority on Capitol Hill, which, as so often, includes Democrats, is going to go at the Iran accord with longshoremen’s hooks during the next two months of debate. This is going to have any dimension of delight?

It is. In my view, the warmongers, exceptionalists, xenophobes and shameful creatures of AIPAC are going to look like the Light Brigade as they charge at the administration intent on destroying this agreement. Into the Valley of Death ride they. This, indeed, will be a delightful defeat to watch, in the best outcome a massacre.

The political calculus in this is already plain and does not seem arguable. On Monday the U.N. Security Council’s 15 members voted unanimously to begin lifting economic sanctions against Iran in 90 days—in effect endorsing the Vienna document. Even the ever-hawkish Samantha Power, obviously under White House orders, approved the resolution.

By the time the Security Council resolution passed, the European Union had already voted to back the accord and begin lifting some—not all—of the three sets of sanctions in place against Iran since 2006. As to Russia and China, they were both members of the P5 + 1 group of negotiators who sat at the mahogany table facing Iran; their position on this deal is beyond doubt.

Look at the lineup. Scuttling this accord—even trying to scuttle it—puts rightist American legislators against virtually all major powers and, I am confident, all secondary and minor powers, never mind “virtually.” Only Israel and the Saudis now stand against the achievement shared by P5 + 1 and Iran.

The blissful paradox here is too good to miss. The reactionaries, militarists and nostalgists who assert the sanctity of American leadership in global affairs most vigorously will be on full display as solitary laggards—incapable of participating sensibly in the 21st century. It is impossible to imagine those beyond our shores doing anything other than ignoring a congressional attempt to block the advance the Obama administration has fashioned with Iran and the three allies and two antagonists that comprise P5 +1.

Possessed of a political culture more than two millennia old, Iranian lawmakers have missed no trick. As of Tuesday, when they determined to withhold approval of the nuclear accord pending 80 days of deliberation—20 more than Congress has—the spring is set on the trap Obama’s opponents have set for themselves with stunning stupidity. Wreck this agreement and they will wreck it alone.

There is but one alternative open to these people: They can back down. This is a call I cannot make, but it does not matter much at the moment. Charge on or crawl back on their bellies, the extremist factions that have systematically crippled the legislative branch over the past half-dozen years are going to lose very, very big by summer’s end. This is my call.

Let the political blood flow, I say. Let the Potomac run red with it.

I was far away writing a book when Tea Partiers appeared as a national phenom in 2008 or so. They looked from a distance like some freakish tumor on the body politic. Either they will evaporate like rain on a hot country road, I remember thinking, or we are about to watch the slow-mo self-destruction of the Republican Party as we know it.

Imploding Republicans sounded like a good, plausible idea, but who could have guessed that a foreign policy negotiation would prove such a catalyst?

Already we can start talking about the GOP “as we knew it.” The party of bankers and merchants who looked outward for trade and markets long outperformed the party of farmers and factory workers on the foreign side. If the Iran deal proves anything, it is that the hourglass has rotated.

This column holds no brief for the Democrats’ idea of a vibrant foreign policy, the Obama-Kerry act being no exception. But at least there are signs of life—as the Iran accord also proves. In this connection, it is a brilliant coincidence that the Cuban flag goes up in Washington after more than half a century just as the Iran debate sails forward.

Dick Cheney was instantly out of the gate after the State Department announced the success of the Vienna talks. “This deal will, in fact, I think, [sic] put us closer to the actual use of nuclear weapons than we’ve been since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II,” he said on Fox News last Wednesday.

Extreme and extremely nonsensical, but the sneering former vice-president’s faux-gravity is too tiresome to take seriously at this point. It is the younger voices who tell us where the GOP is now.

“There is no nuclear deal or framework with Iran,” Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansan who wrote that badly calculated “open letter” to Tehran a few months ago, said in a press statement. “There is only a list of dangerous U.S. concessions that will put Iran on a path to nuclear weapons.”

Marco Rubio, the Floridian seeking the Republican nomination, on CNN last Sunday: “I would never have entered into this negotiation…. Our foreign policy is not subject to what Russia wants to do, or what China wants to do, or what the E.U. wants to do. We have our own foreign policy.”

And then Scott Walker, who is breaking out of the pack as my favorite political buffoon, with that Clintonesque grimace of determination he has down pat: “I’m going to tear up this agreement on Day 1 of my presidency. It’s that bad a deal.”

Fraudulent twice, this: Nobody’s tearing up anything on January 20, 2017; it is not possible. And Walker had no idea how good or bad the deal was when he spoke: He could not have read the document.

None of these people had, which one or two of those making such statements had the honesty to acknowledge. But as the astonishing Walker said in response to Jeb Bush’s faint suggestion of prudence, “We don’t need more information. We don’t need to wait to confirm the next secretary of state. We need decisive leadership and we need it now.”

I see three things in these sorts of comments.

One, it is the sound of advanced decay on the American right as the Tea Party has forced it to the very far right. Whatever one’s view of the Iran accord, these people must not be taken seriously as candidates for the White House when there is as much at stake in our conduct abroad as there is now. I would think they frighten even Republicans still capable of seeing straight.

Two, the Republican majority in Congress, including those seeking the party’s presidential nomination, are simply too unaware of the world beyond our shores to act responsibly on Iran or any other significant policy question.

In this connection, I loved the Times report 10 days ago to the effect that Walker was coming over on the campaign trail as stupid and unsophisticated. “Scott is working on that,” one of his advisors replied to the Times’ Patrick Healy.

Are we supposed to think this will do? This guy is lumpen—taking the historical view, American decline made flesh.

Finally, it is true that opponents of the Iran nuclear accord did not need to read it and require no more knowledge of it now. The details of the pact will be ground to the consistency of talcum powder over the next two months. But this debate will be a proxy for what is truly at issue, in my view.

This is not to say the debate as we will have it is not important. It is. I have read nothing in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action issued July 14, or anything written about it, to suggest it is other than good. Let it be defended against all comers, but I have it from excellent sources in Washington that the administration is privately delighted that it got more out of the Iranian side than it ever expected.

Apart from the merits of the terms, there are the ancillaries. One, the U.S. is economically motivated just as surely as Iran, the Europeans and the Russians are: The potential profits to come as sanctions fall can hardly be measured. To illustrate the point, this appears to be a big reason resistance to the Cuban opening turned out to be rather muted. Two, Tehran wants this deal to work sufficiently that it could be effectively neutralized, at least to an extent, on questions such as Syria.

You would think those opposed to the Obama-Kerry deal would consider such things desirable—and that they may run into resistance from some of the very corporations that support them. Very unlikely in the first case, not yet in the second.

In my read, this accord is all about things that run too deep to allow for good thinking—or any thinking—among the extreme rightists plainly driving the opposition agenda. The brawl to come will be text and subtext in the way of an iceberg. Leaving such questions as Israel out of it for now, truly at issue are (1) American ideology as formed in the 18th century and (2) how this ideology came to be interpreted in the 20th.

Think about these four very considerable implications. They are the true reasons the American right rises against a breakthrough display of what this nation can do once it recognizes that the disorder it insists on causing more or less everywhere it sets foot always and inevitably comes home to haunt it:

* By embedding the Iran démarche in the P5 + 1 framework, Obama and Kerry have just made the case that multipolarity is tomorrow’s design, the sole superpower bit yesterday’s. Better very late than never at all is the best one can say.

* Given the prevalently hostile climate in which the Iran talks were conducted, Obama and Kerry have asserted themselves, powerfully if implicitly, against a foreign policy structure that has been steadily more militarized since the 1945 victories and the Cold War’s onset shortly after them. Corollary: They have shown the long-accepted binary—military engagement or isolation—to be false. This is a step toward maturity.

* Cautiously, even stealthily, and far away in Swiss and Austrian hotels, Kerry dropped the ridiculous pretense that Iran had no rights to a nuclear program of any kind other than those Washington might confer. He had no choice, of course, given he was operating in that place beyond American shores known as the real world.

The fiction that Iran’s claims to “rights” require quotation marks still carries on Capitol Hill, but that is now America’s problem and no one else’s. International law and respect for the sovereignty of others rule in the Iran agreement—another step toward a future that will be different from the past.

* One of the most curious observations made in the media last week was in a Times news analysis published the day after the deal was done. “Senior officials of two countries who barely spoke to one another for more than three decades,” David Sanger wrote, “have spent the past 20 months locked in hotel rooms, arguing about centrifuges but also learning how each perceives the other.”

This is tiny and huge all at once. As America achieved material supremacy in the last century—industrial, military, scientific—seeing anything from another’s perspective became entirely beside the point. By Bush II and the “decontextualization” Richard Perle, Bush’s faux-intellectual mannequin, went on about, any such notion was suspect as somehow unmanly and unpatriotic. Kerry asserted otherwise in his dealings with the Iranians.

I see three realities at work in this last point. One, the era just described is over. Two, this deal acknowledges a parity between West and non-West that Washington has long refused to acknowledge. Three, there is no Wilsonian insistence that others must be remade in the American image.

All four of the implications just listed in bullet points are historic. To me, the last is the biggest of them by a long way. Staying with the iceberg theme, this is the 90 percent of the document not visible in the text itself. This is what the theater to come will be about.

Is there a way to summarize neatly what the document the White House just sent to Congress puts on the table? My candidate is a true delight to write: This signals the beginning of the end of American exceptionalism, however long the final act may drag out.

It is hard to say whether Obama, and maybe Kerry, too, understood what they were taking on—by way of the American consciousness, I mean—when they began negotiating with Tehran in the autumn of 2013. But it is interesting to wonder, and one hopes they did.

Amid all the criticisms of the Obama-Kerry foreign policy voiced in this space—and I cannot retract a word of it—I have always wondered whether there is any such thing as an Obama Doctrine. No one in the administration has ever tried to articulate one, but I conclude now the answer is yes: There is an Obama Doctrine, but to declare its provisions would be politically perilous.

We will see just how perilous in the coming 60 days, for in the things just listed lies the outline of the doctrine, in my view. It will prevail come September, and Obama’s record on the foreign side will turn out to be more than the sum of its parts.

Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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