Rare Species, Previously Believed Extinct, Sighted: A Balanced Analysis Of The Iran Nuclear Deal

On a matter of as much significance and complexity as the Iran nuclear deal, it is depressing to see that almost all commentary in the news media begins with a partisan bias, a “team” mentality, and the typical talking-point orientation that makes genuine public understanding unattainable today. People choose the position that already aligns with their friends and their loyalties, and adopt it uncritically. As a result, public discourse is useless.

This is no way to run a democracy.

Elliot Cohen is a prominent Never-Trump neo-con and foreign policy scholar, writing in the Atlantic, a generally “resistance”-favorable progressive publication. His analysis of the current contretemps involving the Iran deal is the closest I have seen yet to a fair and balanced one. That doesn’t mean I think he is right on all counts, especially ethically. The second half of this statement, for example is as  troubling as the first half is refreshing:

“The Iran deal was, in truth, a very bad one. It did nothing to inhibit Iranian behavior in the broader Middle East, did nothing to stop its ballistic programs, and opened the path for a resumption of the nuclear-weapons program in a decade or so. Some of us said so at the time. Walking away from it, however, will make matters worse not only because success is unlikely, but because this shredding of an earlier presidential agreement further undermines the qualities that those who look to American leadership have come to value—predictability, steadiness, and continuity. Even when American allies have doubted the superpower’s wisdom, they usually felt they could count on its constancy.”

They also have to be able to count on its competence, courage, and ability to change course when a current course is disastrous. It is unethical to make policies that are careless, expedient and dangerous in a setting where there is no recourse once the course is set.  Leaders have to undo mistakes and take new directions even when it means future distrust and present anger.  The previous President took unseemly joy in declaring previous Presidential policies wrong-headed, and reversing them forthwith. True: this is a bad habit, and all leaders should respect previous decisions and commitments by their predecessors, except in extraordinary circumstances. The standard should be similar to the Supreme Court’s rule of stare decisus, which means that previous SCOTUS rulings have the presumption of permanence, unless they are sufficiently bad for law and the nation. I am satisfied to move the Iran debate from the Obama-Kerry mythology to “it’s a bad deal.” The question is then whether it is sufficiently bad to justify a variance from the general rule that Presidents ought to leave agreements made before their election stand if at all possible.

To his credit, Cohen displays almost equal contempt for the Obama administration and President Trump. Some notable excerpts:

“In foreign policy as domestically, the Trump administration’s style is to be the anti-Obama, and a lot of people like it. To some extent this befalls all administrations: If you served in the George W. Bush administration and lived in Washington, you got a full unpleasant dose of that from 2009 onwards. The wheel having turned, Obama veterans are getting something similar to, and in most cases worse than, what they doled out to their predecessors. They may even grudgingly admit that they went a bit far, but the issue is graver than that. As the Trump administration persists in its reckless disordering of the world, its successors will find it difficult, and perhaps impossible, to recreate the relatively stable post-Cold War world that we will look on far more nostalgically than we now do. The Obama team was a young team. They will return to power, because sooner or later the Republicans will either implode or be evicted from office, or both. The question will then be whether they have learned some lessons.”

Comment: “Reckless” is a tricky term in foreign police and war. Declaring independence was reckless. Not allowing the South to secede was reckless. Entering World War II was reckless. The United States and its leaders have done many reckless things, and an amazing proportion of them have turned out well, often by pure luck. If Trump’s “reckless” policies end up benefiting the U.S. and the world, the fact that they were reckless will be of academic interest only.


“Once one has experienced the headiness of being at the top, the long hours and multiple pressures, the loss of nights or weekends with family, the sense of urgency and accomplishment that government uniquely brings, it is very hard to say to yourself: “We really screwed up. And the Big Boss, whom I worshipped, screwed up most of all.” But that is the ultimate test of a former appointee’s political maturity. Half-a-dozen years ago, I tried to organize a kind of collective self-criticism session about Iraq with Bush administration veterans. Within 15 minutes, it degenerated into recrimination, furious denial, and sputtering indignation. I never tried it again.”

Comment: Well, this is why the world doesn’t work. Part of ethics is honesty, and recognizing when bias—and one’s bias towards oneself is the greatest bias of all—makes you stupid. If we have leaders who refuse to learn from their mistakes—and who can’t distinguished between wrong decisions that turned out well and good decisions that didn’t—then we have to look for, and train, more trustworthy leaders.

You can read the whole essay here.



20 thoughts on “Rare Species, Previously Believed Extinct, Sighted: A Balanced Analysis Of The Iran Nuclear Deal

  1. 1) I agree that we should try to stick with deals as much as possible.

    2) Most of our actions on the world stage are contained within a narrow window driven by our nation’s geopolitical imperatives (which we mostly do not get to choose but are, rather, handed to us by nature)…so any given Administration’s “Foreign Policy” can never truly be separated from a previous administration’s “Foreign Policy”…and promised variations between the Foreign Policies of two administrations either fall within the boundaries of our geopolitical imperatives OR are not fulfilled.

    3) Administrations that do take action outside the constraints of our imperatives generally have disastrous results.

    4) Obama’s deal was one of those actions.

    5) Unfortunately, Trump’s undoing of the deal will NEVER undo the most disastrous affect Obama’s deal: giving Iran access to tens of billions of its dollars.

  2. I think, that even if one were to argue that Iran complied with the deal and was doing everything that was agreed to, the Trump administration had good standing to undo it just on the fact of its non-deal deal architecture, meaning there was no Senate ratification, as required for treaties. Throwing it out the window for the sake of upholding the US Constitution and laws is totally worth it. It shows the world we are serious too, because we can follow our own rules, which are the most important rules to us. I find it laughable, when Obama veterans talk about how this blows up US standing in the world and our integrity. They surely have some warped ethics. This actually returns our standing in the world, that we mean business, not just mealy mouthed rhetoric of standing up for international values, whatever that means, and then standing by idly when our adversaries pick up the slack, and us complaining that we can’t do anything because fait accompli.

    • I was going to say much the same thing, but you already have it covered. Executive orders are capricious and fleeting things, easily written and easily overridden by the next guy. If you want a deal with a foreign country to last, pass it as a treaty.

      It is painful to see how low we’ve fallen as a country, when Donald Fucking Trump is the bulwark against unconstitutional government overreach. He almost certainly has never read that document, and likely wouldn’t understand much of it if he did, yet his administration seems to be following it better than the last several were able to manage. What kind of bizarro world do we inhabit now?

      • I guess with some of our previous administrations, it’s like the saying, to do something really stupid, you need to be very well educated, because stupid people wouldn’t be able to come with something so stupid. If one doesn’t try to be too clever for their own good, they won’t hoist themselves on their own petard.
        The Trump administration gets in trouble on its own fine, but not because of being too clever.

      • Perhaps Cohen has a globalist bias. That can explain a trivial attitude towards sovereignty, when one is thinking about “big picture” international community type of stuff, getting bogged down by constitutional technicalities can be bothersome.

  3. The problem with being President is that there is no training program. It is basically OJT. Closest, I’d guess, would be being a Governor, but even that pales in comparison.

    • I don’t disagree, but, and don’t laugh, I bet having been the president’s chief of staff would probably be the ultimate in knowing exactly How It’s Done.

      It’s an awful political qualification though.

      • Unfortunately, being the president’s chief of staff often means you have to be his hatchet man and/or fixer, which sometimes requires strong-arming or bullying. Folks like that don’t tend to be popular with voters. Rahm Emanuel may have become mayor of Chicago, but there’s no way he would ever get elected to nationwide office. Andrew Card got a nice post as a university president, but ditto, putting aside the fact that he is now kind of old (71) to be running.

  4. The Iran Deal is the Phantom Menace of foreign policy achievements. I can’t put my finger on a single positive outcome other than, “Obama gets something that will look like a foreign policy achievement for a few years until it becomes clear that it wasn’t.”

  5. “People choose the position that already aligns with their friends and their loyalties, and adopt it uncritically. As a result, public discourse is useless.”

    Completely right, BUT, equally as important is that people also see the position that doesn’t align with their friends and their loyalties and relentlessly attack it, mock it, and ridicule it, often without even trying to understand it, and maybe even without thinking about it.

    During the Cold War we had experts on the Soviet Union for a reason, and now we have/had people like John Abizaid for a reason. If you know your enemy and you know how he thinks you will also know more ways to counter him. If you know your enemy’s capabilities and tactics you will also know how to counter those.

    Just because you hate your enemy and hold him in contempt does not make him powerless, nor does it make him a fool or a buffoon. Richard Dawkins might sneer at religion and say one does not need to study fairy tales to know they are not true, but it just makes him and those who cleave to his teachings look like arrogant jerks, and persuades no one. I might sneer at Islam and call it the religion of the pedophile raider (half-truth), but that doesn’t make dangerous fanatics like ISIS any less dangerous. The left might laugh at and mock Trump the same as they mocked GWB, but it doesn’t make him no longer president, and it doesn’t automatically mean everything he does is wrong or stupid or tainted or doomed to fail from the start. You assume so at the risk of appearing the fool later.

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