The Iran deal, a repudiation of the Bush doctrine

Updated 11:33 AM EDT, Wed September 2, 2015

Story highlights

Zelizer: If it allows Iran nuclear deal to stand, Congress would OK an approach to Middle East that contrasts with Bush's war on Iraq

He says the deal repudiates the focus on regime change that Bush endorsed

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society” and co-editor of a new book, “Medicare and Medicaid at 50: America’s Entitlement Programs in the Age of Affordable Care.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

Congress is preparing to vote on a resolution of disapproval for President Obama’s deal with Iran that would bring an end to the era of economic sanctions in exchange for a tough system of inspections to prevent the production of nuclear weapons.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Over the summer, the administration has conducted an all-out lobbying campaign to win over supporters in both parties. If the House and Senate muster the votes for the resolution, Obama would veto it. Right now opponents don’t have enough votes to override a veto. The President has had considerable success keeping most Democrats in line, although there have been a few high profile defections such as New York Sen. Charles Schumer.

But the congressional opposition to the deal remains fierce. Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are planning to unite, for a moment, at a rally on September 9 near the Capitol to “call on members of Congress to defeat the catastrophic” Iran deal. This has been an emotional battle with many critics suggesting the deal poses immense dangers.

Opponents have repeatedly warned that this deal will set the world on a path toward a major war, with the very real possibility that Iran will obtain the capability to launch devastating nuclear weapons against the Israelis.

In the minds of Obama’s critics, this deal is the culmination of everything that the administration has done wrong on foreign policy. “It’s going to hand a dangerous regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief,” said Speaker John Boehner, “while paving the way for a nuclear Iran.” The issue is already popping up in several Senate campaigns.

Andrea Bozek, the spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that “Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran is a defining national security issue. Any serious candidate running for office should have to answer if they support this nuclear deal that threatens our national security.” The arguments play perfectly into the kind of aggressive hawkish statements that are being touted by Republican candidates like Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump.

This is not the first time conservatives have attacked an international deal as evidence that the President is soft when it comes to foreign policy. President Richard Nixon faced attacks from conservatives like Ronald Reagan because of his SALT agreement with the Soviet Union. President Carter faced similar attacks in 1978 and 1979 with his Panama Canal Treaty and his unsuccessful effort to ratify SALT II.

When Ronald Reagan, as president, pushed the Senate to ratify the INF agreement with the Soviets, conservatives blasted him as weak on defense. They accused him of appeasing a dangerous and untrustworthy Soviet Union. The Treaty, according to John Roche of the National Review, was a “recipe for long-term disaster.”

There are many reasons behind the opposition to the deal with Iran in 2015. For many supporters of Israel, this deal creates a huge risk by allowing this chief adversary, whose stated mission has been the destruction of the Jewish state, to revive its economy and secretly move forward with the technological process of producing a bomb. For other critics, the details of the deal are bad.

Since Iran finally came to the table, the U.S. should have held out for something better, in their view: There are too many risks and too many holes in the agreement to create confidence that a devious and dangerous government will follow it. And for others, this is another misguided attempt by Obama to rely on diplomacy to handle difficult situations overseas.

The debate over the Iran deal is especially heated for many conservatives since it constitutes a direct repudiation of the principles and strategies – and mistakes – that drove the U.S. into the Iraq war in 2003. In other words, Iran is only a part of the debate that is going on in Congress. Should Congress support this deal, it will be affirming a very different approach to foreign policy than the one President Bush embraced after the horror of 9/11.

Here are the three key elements of the approach.

1. Internationalism rather than unilateralism is the basis of this deal. From the very start of his presidency, Obama has made this one of the central missions of his foreign policy. Obama is a product of the global world, and he has always argued that the U.S. cannot handle the threats we face on our own.

The premise of the Iran framework negotiated by the U.S. Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany is that it is better to have strong international support behind a strategy for dealing with global threats. The international community will improve the chances of ensuring that the inspection mechanisms are enforced, and their existence will create much stronger support for military action should the Iranians fail to adhere to the deal.

President Bush was much more comfortable with the U.S. dictating the terms of international military conflict, relying on a thin “coalition of the willing” as evidence that the world endorsed their attacks. The results were disastrous. Military, political and financial support for the war quickly dwindled.

While the U.S. faced the costs of dealing with Iraq with only a handful of allies, and losing the kind of international commitment that would have made a long-term plan of reconstruction Iraq more effective, this time Obama wants to do things differently. Given that international support for economic sanctions no longer exists, the U.S. would be going against most of its allies – and not being effective in the process – by rejecting the deal.

Internationalism has been the basis for some of the most successful efforts by the U.S. to achieve peace since World War II. Internationalism does not mean the unwillingness to use military force. Rather it is based on a preference for international institutions and alliances that will set the rules as to when force should be used.

As President Harry Truman said upon the creation of NATO, “What we are about to do here is a neighborly act. We are like a group of householders, living in the same locality, who decide to express their community of interests by entering into a formal association for their mutual self-protection.”

2. More Information is better than less information.

This was one of the most important lessons from Iraq. During that invasion, the U.S. faced a hugely embarrassing catastrophe when the basis of the claims behind the war, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction proved to be incorrect. In 2005, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction presented its findings to President Bush, saying that the assessments of the intelligence community with Iraq was a “major intelligence failure.” During the post-war reconstruction of Iraq, it also became clear that the Pentagon had vastly underestimated the resources that would be necessary to build a stable democratic government.

This deal has received the endorsement of a huge number of internationally renowned, prize-winning scientists who all claim that this is the best path forward for knowing what is going on in Iran. Earlier this month, 29 of the nation’s leading scientists backed the deal. “This is an innovative agreement,” they wrote, “with much more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated non-proliferation framework.”

Most experts have agreed that the inspections system put into place will be extremely robust and create strong disincentives for the Iranians to cheat. Rather than speculation and faulty intelligence, the international community will now have the ability to make judgments, both about whether the deal is being followed and whether war is necessary, based on much more sophisticated data.

As some hawks have argued, this will also help the U.S. and its allies in dealing with Iran militarily if it became necessary. In Politico, two former legislators, Carl Levin and John Warner wrote: “Those who think the use of force against Iran is almost inevitable should want the military option to be as credible and effective as possible, both as a deterrent to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and in destroying Iran’s nuclear weapons program should that become necessary. For that to be the case the United States needs to be a party to the agreement rather than being the cause of its collapse.”

3. This deal repudiates the mechanism of regime change that the Iraq war embraced. In that war, brute and immediate military force was seen as the best way to quickly knock down a government regime. The problem turned out to be that this did not create a foundation internally for a stable transition.

The Iran deal takes a very different approach. This does not accept that the regime will last forever, nor does it accept its legitimacy. One of the big hopes of the deal is that by engaging the nation and allowing the flow of economic activity to enter into Iran, the U.S. and its allies will be able to nurture the kind of internal divisions that have allowed for these negotiations to even take place.

The hope is that through engagement rather than isolation, democratic opposition will intensify against the Supreme Leader. “This deal demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change,” the President said, “change that makes our country and the world more secure.”

So the tension over Iran is great because this is a great battle over the principle of foreign policy and not just about this particular deal. The time has come for Congress to put its stamp of approval on this deal, making it clear to the Iranians that the full force of American political opinion is behind what the President has helped to craft. Congress has an opportunity to put us on a different path toward international stability and security than the one adopted, disastrously, in 2003 with the Iraq war.

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