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.