“President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran will be remembered as one of America’s worst diplomatic failures.”- Scott Walker, Republican Governor of Wisconsin and former Presidential candidate.
“It is a fundamental betrayal of the security of the United States and of our closest allies, first and foremost Israel,”- Ted Cruz, Republican Senator from Texas and Presidential candidate.
“President Obama has consistently negotiated from a position of weakness, giving concession after concession to a regime that has American blood on its hands, holds Americans hostage, and has consistently violated every agreement it ever signed.”- Marco Rubio, Republican Senator from Florida and Presidential candidate.
“If they accept the terms of the deal they could be in the same position regardless in one year. They could just cheat on the deal anyway. There is a long and ignominious history of rogue regimes like Iran accepting these deals and immediately starting to cheat, as happened in North Korea, as happened in Iraq.”- Tom Cotton, Republican Senator from Arkansas.
Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran “will take Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” –Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas Governor and Republican Presidential candidate.
Based on the above quotes, if you had just woken up from a ten year coma, you would be forgiven for thinking that President Barak Obama had just agreed to a deal with Iran that gives them legal sanction to begin producing nuclear weapons and then use them on Israel. Of course what was actually agreed to was an international agreement between seven nations (America, Iran, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China) that begins lifting economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for reducing its nuclear research program and capability as well as the institution of a United Nations inspections regime. Putting aside for now the criticism that the deal wasn’t strong enough on Iran and Obama is weak; implicit in all of the angst is that Iran cannot be trusted. They are incapable of keeping to their agreements. No one could possibly take Iran at their word. Even Obama, anticipating this argument, was at pains to state over and over that the agreement “is not built on trust, it is built on verification.” To many American’s Iran is an enemy; a radical, Islamic fundamentalist, insane, untrustworthy nation bent on world domination that cannot be reasoned or negotiated with. Many of those same American’s will believe that this conclusion about Iran is perfectly in line with available evidence (more on this in a later post). However, what is most interesting to me as an international relations historian of Americas Global Empire, is how often over the past century the American people and its leaders have used these basic arguments against a whole host of ‘enemies.’ From Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam to Mao Zedong in China, from Stalin and Gorbachev in the Soviet Union to the Taliban in Afghanistan, one of the most predictable aspects of American foreign policy is the demonization of any nation deemed an enemy, and the fanatical conviction they will not stick to any agreements made with the US or the international community. As I explore the nature of Americas Global Empire this is one structure I have tentatively called the Inherently Untrustworthy Enemy.
At the end of WWII and the dawn of the Cold War, President Harry Truman was faced with reorganizing a world system, much of it in ashes, with the Allied victors. As it became increasingly clear that Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union had different concerns and priorities than the United States and United Kingdom in the new post war world, the democratic west began casting the USSR as an untrustworthy potential enemy rather than a largely trusted and valued war ally. Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain speech given in Missouri at Westminster College in 1946, implored American’s to believe that for the Soviet Union there is “nothing which they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for military weakness.” Churchill’s vision of the USSR was a people that were incapable of rational negotiation based on common interest and compromise. Ultimately, according to Churchill, Communism represented a “fifth column” and that “Nobody knows what Soviet Russia and its Communist international organisation intends to do in the immediate future, or what are the limits, if any, to their expansive and proselytising tendencies.”
In both private and public pronouncements, Truman began asserting that Stalin and the Soviets could not be trusted, and that they would never stick to any agreement. Truman even went so far as to commission a study from presidential advisor and super lawyer Clark Clifford that would detail all of the times that the Soviets had reneged on private and public agreements since 1941. Clark had a long career advising and serving in multiple democratic administrations that spanned decades. He began as an advisor to Truman and then later played prominent roles in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter presidencies, even serving briefly as Defense Secretary under LBJ. In 1946, Clark asked for input from throughout the executive branch. He enlisted the military, civilian, and nascent intelligence community for analyses on Soviet policy and intentions. The resulting document concluded that the USSR had always adhered to the letter, if not the spirit, of all of their agreements. As Arnold A. Offner argues in Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, the Clifford report claimed that the Soviets had “transgressed the spirit” of wartime agreements and assigned a litany of nefarious Soviet intentions in its negotiations designed to gain it world dominance and reduce America’s influence and prestige around the world. The report concluded that the Soviets only understood force and “this meant that the U.S. had to be ready to use bacteriological and atomic weapons.” Quite a report. The USSR had upheld all their agreements, so the US needed to prepare for biological and atomic global warfare.
During the Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1954-55 and 1958, Eisenhower refused to consider a negotiated settlement of various offshore islands that Jiang Jeishi and the Republic of China (ROC) controlled and Mao Zedong and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) claimed. Some in the Eisenhower administration proposed giving Quemoy and Matsu to the PRC in exchange for assurances that Taiwan would remain independent. Whether Mao and Jiang would have agreed to this is beside the point here. The reasoning by Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and many of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for not engaging the PRC was that they could not be trusted. Communists, after all, never live up to their agreements. This despite the fact that Mao’s government had never abrogated an international agreement and had just a few months before agreed to an end of the Korean War. According to the Eisenhower administration, China was an enemy to world peace and they operated outside of ‘civilized’ international norms. During the final weeks and months of the French Indo-China war, as Dien Bien Phu was crumbling under the weight of Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap’s Vietnam People’s Army, Eisenhower was reluctant to bring the war to an international conference in which communists would participate because, “to my knowledge the fact that Communists were to participate in any international conference never implied that they would either make concessions or keep promises.”
A generation later, Ronald Reagan engaged Mikhail Gorbachev in high-level super power summit talks to reduce both countries nuclear arsenals. Despite calling the Soviet Union the ‘Evil Empire,’ one of Reagans first in person comments to his counterpart was “I bet the hard-liners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.” An avalanche of conservative criticism was leveled at Reagan in 1987 when he signed the INF treaty, one of the most sweeping and significant arms control agreement of the Cold War. Conservative columnist George Will wrote that Reagan was “elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.” The conservative National Review declared the INF treaty “national suicide.” Others called Reagan a “useful idiot” for the Kremlin and compared him to Neville Chamberlain, the poster boy for the appeasement of intractable and untrustworthy enemies.
If America’s enemies are forever incapable of holding to their agreements, then conversely the United States must always keep to its treaties and promises, correct? America would never, for example, decide that it no longer needed to adhere to previously agreed to treaties with tribal governments and force thousands of Native Americans off their land and remove them to Indian Territory. Or in 1956, President Eisenhower would never refuse to allow general elections in North and South Vietnam that were agreed to at an international conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Of course both happened. The reality is that governments, all governments, make and uphold agreements as long as they believe it is in their interest. Treaties and agreements are temporary and never immutable. That is just life. Iran will uphold the nuclear agreement as long as they believe it is in their interest. The same is true for the other nations involved. At present, it looks as though the deal is working as it was designed. There’s an old saying that you do not make peace with your friends. This agreement may prove to be the foundation of a building trust between the Islamic Republic and the international community. At worst, it will breakdown in the near future and we will go back to sanctions and a policy of containment with Iran. Obama should be commended for at least trying to create a new reality in which Iran and the rest of the world can operate and the creation of a world with fewer nuclear weapons programs and maybe, perhaps, a safer and more peaceful place to live.