Yesterday, in Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings, the Republican chairman, Senator Robert Corker, accused Secretary of State John Kerry of moving from a situation in which Iran was a pariah to one in which Congress was a pariah. There was more than a grain of truth in that statement--but in fact, what is at stake is much, much bigger, even though the real issue is being treated rather quietly by both sides.
"Congress," today, means the Republican Party, whose successful long-term offensive has given it majorities in both houses and left the Republicans just one election away from completely transforming the United States. But with regard to Iran, the Republicans stand for two things. To begin with, they stand for the neoconservative doctrines put into effect by George W. Bush, that give the United States the right and the duty to rule the world and to apply force as necessary against any state perceived to be seeking nuclear weapons. But equally importantly today is the rock-solid alliance, unprecedented in American history, between the Congressional Republicans and the Israeli government. The Israeli Ambassador, Ron Dermer--who, like his predecessor Michael Oren, was born and grew uip in the United States--has been having Republicans-only meetings on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, AIPAC, the leading U.S. organization advocating on behalf of the Israeli government, is apparently throwing all its enormous political capital into the scales against the agreement, with the result that many Democrats are reluctant, as yet, to endorse it. (One notable exception is Democratic whip Charles Schumer of New York.) Those wishing to reacquaint themselves with AIPAC's tactics and power should review this post, and the Michael Massing article in The New York Review of Books upon which it was based. To stop the deal--or rather, to keep the US out of the deal--AIPAC needs 2/3 majorities to override a presidential veto in both Houses. I do not think it is impossible that they might get them.
It was inevitable that the Republican Party, in its utterly single-minded drive to regain power and undo the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society, would make an ironclad alliance with a powerful lobby that does not care in the least about American domestic politics but only foreign policy. Equally determined Republicans made a comparable alliance 70 years ago with the "China lobby" on behalf of Chiang Kai-Shek's doomed regime in China, and kept a stranglehold on U.S. China policy until Richard Nixon turned apostate, courageously, in 1971. Until Barack Obama, Democratic legislators and Presidents had been nearly as beholden to the Israeli lobby as Republican ones, and despite all the bitter rhetoric between Obama and Netanyahu over the past few years, this is the first time that Obama has actually done something directly contrary to Israeli policy. The issue is quite simple: the Israelis have tried to insist that the US treat as a pariah state any nation that has openly called for their destruction, to put maximum pressure upon it, and in certain circumstances, to go to war with it. The second Iraq war as a triumph for Israel, and Benjamin Netanyahu joined George W. Bush in proclaiming that it would lead to a new era of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. This Israeli policy--along with the continuing, if clearly unsuccessful, attempt to replace the Palestinian population of Jerusalem and the West Bank with an Israeli one--has isolated Israel within the world community for some time. That is why the veto power of the U.S. has repeatedly protected Israel against Security Council resolutions condemning various Israeli policies. The Iran agreement terrifies Netanyahu, I think, not simply because he thinks Iran might get a nuclear weapon, but because it marks the end of the era in which the United States would diplomatically protect Israel.
President Obama's defense of the agreement has been provocative, sophisticated, and effective, although typically, as in the case of the Obama doctrine, he has not enunciated it in a major speech, the way that Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Nixon would have. It rests on a frank recognition that the United States must live alongside many states that do not share our interests and values, but with whom we can make useful agreements. As Obama told Jon Stewart the other night, if we could make such agreements with the Soviet Union when it had 10,000 nuclear warheads pointed at us, surely we can make agreements with Iran to keep them from having any. The President pledged to continue opposing Iranian support for militant groups in certain countries (he did not really answer Stewart's question as to why we were with Iran in Syria and Iraq, but against them in Yemen), and, to my sorrow, he forswore re-opening diplomatic relations with Teheran. But the broader point he is making, with typical, maddening restraint, is true. Neither Russia nor China, as well as Iran, shares our values or wants the kind of world that we do. We have proven that military force cannot transform the Middle East according to our wishes, and a military conflict with Russia or China would be a disaster we cannot imagine. American diplomacy now faces unprecedented challenges, requiring a realistic, sophisticated view of other nations and regions, their values, their aspirations, and the ways in which we can live together in the same world. We barely survived that situation during the Cold War, and we disposed of a far more educated elite then than we do now. But Obama and Kerry are headed in the right direction.
The alternative, clearly, is the for the US to remain tightly allied with Israel in opposition to every other major power in the world, including Britain, France, and Germany. That has been the goal of Israel and AIPAC for years, and under George W. Bush they achieved it regarding Iraq--with disastrous results. That policy is not, we must keep in mind, supported by all Israelis, and its opponents include not only Israeli doves, who are increasingly isolated, but former heads of Mossad, at least one of whom has endorsed the agreement. Republican rhetoric of "American exceptionalism" also militates in favor of that outcome. Obama has in fact paid shockingly little attention to our traditional allies, but John Kerry has now created a new situation. The Iran agreement is an important step in the right direction for the United States.