by Bruce Thornton
The readiness to use force to help our friends -- and hurt our enemies.
Last week ex-CIA chief Michael Hayden signed a letter with a “bipartisan group of 115 national security leaders” that counsels the Trump administration and new National Security Advisor John Bolton not to jettison the nuclear deal with Iran. Hayden’s justification for this advice illustrates all the stale ideas and unexamined assumptions about foreign affairs that have brought us to this crisis in the first place––and why we need the return to realism we are likely to see with Bolton at the helm.
Hayden starts by admitting that the deal has problems. Iran was on the economic ropes because of the sanctions, and so should have been the “suppliant,” not us. Hayden’s delicate indirection refers to Obama’s shameful eagerness for a deal, any deal in fact, to burnish his foreign policy “legacy” and please the “international community” with his commitment to “multilateralism” and “smart diplomacy” instead of military power. Hayden also notes Obama’s “bait-and-switch when selling the deal to Congress,” a reference to the post facto concessions to the regime, like “abandoned or altered positions on no notice inspections,” which of course make the whole idea of monitoring Iran’s activities a mere aspiration.
Hayden also knows that Iran is a “bad actor.” But this vague cliché cannot accurately describe a repressive, brutal regime that has for nearly forty years soaked its hands in American blood, and now has replaced the U.S. as the dominant power in the Middle East. And it downplays Iran’s role in destabilizing the region as it creates a Shia crescent from Syria to Yemen, and builds a proxy attack-force on Israel’s borders in order to bring the mullahs closer to fulfilling their eschatological dream of “wiping Israel off the map.”
But the vagueness of “bad actor” allows Hayden to make an astonishing claim like this one: “Still, Iran is further away from a weapon with this agreement than they would be without it.” Apart from the either-or fallacy in believing that total war is the only alternative to a bad deal, what possible information does Hayden have that makes this credible? What empirical evidence can he produce to buttress the certainty of such a claim? By what means are the inspectors able to ascertain that Iran is in fact living up to the deal, or even to know the existence or location of all its nuclear development facilities? And what about the preposterous begged question in the letter’s claim that the “Iran will be prohibited from exceeding severe limits” by “continuing, unprecedented international monitoring”? How does “severe” square with the IAEA’s inability to monitor Iran’s compliance with Section T, which bans “activities which could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device”?
And if cheating is detected––as it already has been–– what “action” will the U.S. “take,” as the letter says it can? What further “cheating” would trigger that action, when prior documented violations haven’t? Getting the EU and Russia to go along with “tough sanctions,” when the Europeans are doing big business with Iran, and Russia is delighted with the status quo, one that empowers its partner in the region and discomfits its rival? Or do they mean military action? That has virtually been off the table for years, which is why the letter avoids bringing it up as an option. The 115 “experts” have nothing specific or convincing to say about how Iran, absent force, can be compelled to abide by the terms of the agreement, let alone how the agreement can prevent Iran from getting nukes.
The fact is, neither Hayden nor any of his fellow “experts” can assure us that in less than a decade Iran will not end up with a nuclear arsenal even with the agreement. Supporters of the deal are making an existential wager without any clue of the odds the agreement will work, or any recognition that they are gambling with our security and interests and those of our regional allies, not to mention even further proliferation.
The lack of specific details and evidence that support the claims of the agreement’s efficacy explains the rest of the letter, which mostly focuses on superficial public relations rather than hard facts. “Direct U.S.-Iran communications” will facilitate “crisis management,” we are assured. That is, when conflicts arise from our clashing interests, talking it out will defuse escalation. Notice the assumption: an apocalyptic fanatic regime that has fomented terrorism, murdered our citizens, helped our enemies kill our soldiers, threatens our most valuable allies in the region, and believes we are the “Great Satan,” will be deterred from acting on its beliefs because we “communicate” with them.
A similar doubtful benefit of keeping the agreement, the letter claims, is that North Korea will behave better because it will not be able to say that the U.S. “abrogates agreements without cause,” and so the Norks will be “more likely to negotiate an end to its nuclear program.” Do the letter-writers even know the history of “agreements” with North Korea, the terms of which we kept but that they serially violated? Did those thirty years of broken promises and futile bribes make them more amenable to denuclearizing? What a failure of imagination, to think that the “good faith” of the U.S. regarding a duplicitous Iran will so impress Rocket Man that he will voluntarily give up the only thing keeping him from suffering the fates of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. And don’t forget, the “agreement” with Iran was not ratified by the Senate, and so remains the property of Barack Obama, and is not binding obligation on, or the responsibility of the sovereign people.
The fantasies in this letter keep coming. If we stick with the agreement, the letter says, “other states in the region” will not be as motivated to develop their own nuclear assets because they may suffer the “intense scrutiny and restrictions” put on Iran. What a host of begged questions lurk in this statement––that Iran will not acquire a weapon because of the agreement, that Saudi Arabia doesn’t know the history of proliferation that was not deterred by “sanctions” and “inspections,” or that a country that sees its security and interests under existential threat will patiently wait for an agreement maybe to work before arming itself. Especially when the agreement is being serially violated, and its champions can’t guarantee that it will even work, given the abject failure of similar agreements in the case of North Korea.
The last boon the letter claims for staying the course is the “enhancement” of “U.S. status and leadership.” The Europeans, for example, will be so pleased with us that they will eagerly pitch in when other threats arise. Which in the event means their usual paltry contributions of men and matériel to NATO operations, or blustering rhetoric and meaningless votes in the U.N. Security Council. Here’s the mantra of “multilateralism,” the magical thinking that allies will pursue our interests and security rather than their own because we stuck to a dangerous agreement that they favored. And why shouldn’t they? The business they’re doing with Iran is more important than stopping a genocidal regime threatening a country like Israel they don’t like anyway.
Next, sticking to the agreement will give us the “influence” and “credibility” that will encourage our allies to support us when we have to reimpose punitive sanctions. Again, sovereign nations do not take action unless it serves their own interests, and right now our “partners” find their interests served by a sanctions-free Iran. And “credibility” and “influence” do not flow from putting the interests of other states ahead of our own, but from our willingness to punish our rivals and enemies. Countries bandwagon with a great power because it acts like one, not because they like us or we serve their interests at the expense of our own. Do the “experts” really think that France or Germany, let alone Russia, will eagerly line up to support us if we impose harsh sanctions on Iran that cost Europeans billions of Euros?
Finally, the letter predicts, sticking to the agreement will “deny” Iran the pretext of blaming their development of weapons on our abandonment of a bad deal. Again, international public relations and spin are paramount for the “experts,” as though our prestige depends on whether people like or admire us. Quite the opposite: their liking us usually reflects their satisfaction with our self-abasement and subordination of our interests to theirs. That’s why the “international community” loved Barack Obama so much, and now despise Donald Trump––he puts America’s interests ahead of the mythical “international community.”
As for Iran, it doesn’t need any excuse to keep doing what it already is: arming itself with missiles and nuclear weapons that will catapult them into being the region’s most powerful, and virtually untouchable, hegemon. Sure, they’ll mouth pretexts for their actions based on ideas, like åsigning agreements in good faith, that they know most Western nations endorse. Even Osama bin Laden justified his terrorist murder because the U.S. didn’t sign the Kyoto climate accords favored by the EU. But we shouldn’t take seriously such specious rationalizations, or base our actions on such delusions of shared principles.
This letter is a compendium of the failed assumptions of delusional internationalism. It also explains why John Bolton’s appointment is so necessary. His career has demonstrated a realist understanding of interstate relations, which are based on the diverse, conflicting, and often zero-sum interests of nation-states, rather than on a lofty idealism peculiar to the West. And he recognizes that a prestige based on our willingness to use force to help our friends and hurt our enemies is the necessary precondition of successful diplomacy and negotiations. Bolton’s challenge to the fossilized institutionalist paradigm explains the intense dislike of him. That animus alone is a good enough reason to make him National Security Advisor.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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