It’s time for a profile in constitutional courage from the Congress, from supporters and critics alike of the proposed nuclear deal with Iran as well as members yet undecided. Our legislative branch should embrace its duty to assess President Obama’s great venture in diplomacy, and do so in a civil and sober way, rather than quail at the charge that opposition to or skepticism about the deal is warmongering. It might help to reflect on the similarity between the President’s high-stakes effort in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal) and the gambit of another ambitious president. Just as Woodrow Wilson did in 1919 regarding the League of Nations treaty, Barack Obama seeks American support for an agreement that would transform the international order—even while he and his advocates seek to pressure, even shame, Congress into endorsing (or not opposing) such a stratagem. Then as now, the presidential team warned Congress not stray from international opinion and the endorsement of other leading powers. Then as now, supporters warned Congress that to question the presidential-international diplomatic effort was to reject peace and embrace perpetual war.A sober assessment of this proposed Iran deal should consider, therefore, that the better historical analogy is not President Nixon going to China—the precedent now on everyone’s mind. Obama is not just seeking détente with an enemy for mutual advantage; rather, just as Wilson went to Versailles seeking a treaty that would transform the international order, President Obama quietly seeks to revolutionize post-Cold War international affairs. The President can’t state such a grand strategy openly, since it would be too controversial or unpopular, but his actions strongly suggest it. His aim is to pivot away from American leadership of a liberal global order, with all its burdens on American blood and treasure. Instead we will have a global concert system in which great powers, and rising great powers, broker deals region-by-region in hopes of reducing major wars—thereby reducing the presumptuousness of (and burdens on) America. This is the fruit of the smarter diplomacy and anti-militarism Obama has promised since his first presidential campaign.Even if this deal is just about Iran’s nuclear program, as the President claims, it will have far-reaching consequences, as some of the plan’s more candid supporters acknowledge. If it also is about transforming America’s role in the world under a new global order, it is even more crucial that Congress debate the deal and facilitate a broad national understanding of what is at stake and where America is heading. This constitutional role is important, therefore, whether or not Congress disapproves of America’s role in the deal—and, if it disapproves, whether or not it then overrides the President’s veto of that initial vote.Of course, as with any historical analogy, there are important differences to observe. In Versailles 2.0, Obama seeks not to end all wars; he seeks to end American wars. To keep both Russia and Iran in these long negotiations, the President has looked away or withdrawn while these powers launched or provoked many wars—in Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, and Yemen most prominently. American acquiescence to Chinese provocations on Asia’s high seas is also a cost of this only-speak-softly strategy. Moreover, Versailles 2.0 does not aim to make the world safe for democracy; it aims to reduce the burdens on American democracy. Here it perhaps assumes (as Europe’s political culture does) that there is an historical inevitability to liberal principles and liberal democracy in world affairs, and militarism by liberals only gets in the way.In contrast to Wilson, therefore, Obama seeks transformation not through a utopian project of collective security by all states, making war illegal. Congress should consider, nonetheless, the utopianism in Obama’s vision that American withdrawal from forceful global leadership will reduce American wars, let alone great power wars. (So-called smaller wars, as in Syria and Libya—with hundreds of thousands killed and millions made refugees—are a distinctly secondary concern). In keeping with this vision, the Iran deal implicitly endorses American retrenchment from international responsibility by featuring the U.N. system and diplomacy to achieve a détente. The deal effectively allows the illiberal powers of the U.N. Security Council (Russia, China) and its passive liberal powers (France, Britain), together with the EU and its strategy of achieving peace by being peaceful, to ratify America’s retreat from being the leading power that supports, and enforces, a liberal global order of peace, international rules, and commerce.These are the rationales for accepting a deal that presumes Iran can be a responsible state with vast resources (for starters, up to $150 billion it will get as sanctions end) and with nuclear threshold capability at the very least (even if it observes every detail of the deal), even while it continues to be the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, threatens extermination of a fellow member of the United Nations, wreaks havoc across the Middle East (and beyond), and detains Americans on dubious grounds (more severe critics call them hostages). Even in the post-2001 era, Obama’s vision sees Iran and Middle Eastern order as not primarily America’s problem, and Iran’s revolutionary state as most likely to become reasonable through agreeable diplomacy, not any more forceful option.The JCPOA is therefore about much more than Iran’s fairly clear ambition for nuclear weapons, or even about the fate of the non-proliferation principle (given the prospect that other Middle East states will pursue programs to balance Iran’s). At stake is much more than a path out of the disorder engulfing the Middle East to a degree unprecedented even for that troubled region. When Nixon and Kissinger went to China they sought a realignment of great powers in order to pursue more effectively the bipartisan grand strategy of containment bequeathed to them. It was a change of tactics, if a big one. Obama, like Wilson, seeks a completely different grand strategy. Perhaps given the lessons of Wilson’s brazen confrontation with Congress (which he lost), one sparked in part by his statements about transformational aims, Obama and his advisers have been craftier. They succeeded in framing this deal as an executive agreement rather than a treaty, so it appears less transformational. This also permitted them to avoid the constitutional threshold for treaties of two-thirds support from the Senate; the JCPOA needs support of only one-third-plus-one member in either house. The price of shrewdness, however, is that support from American leaders and citizens for this “historic” deal (in the President’s words) is likely to be less widespread, bipartisan, and firm.The Administration also has succeeded in persuading elite opinion in America and Europe that the only alternative to recognizing Iran as a regional power and nuclear threshold state (eventually a nuclear weapon state)—which required canceling all sanctions and embargoes on Iran’s military programs and international terror network—is “another Middle Eastern war.” This means, of course, a replay of the 2003 Iraq war, and the supposed waste of American blood and treasure for no good result. What Congress instead should consider is the price of this new effort to reduce America’s “costs” in the Middle East and around the world. It should assess the risk involved in this risk-avoidance strategy, of seeking détente with an unreconstructed enemy of liberal principles and world order. Our allies in the region (Israel and the Sunni states alike) and members of both parties in Congress have stated that they see the likely costs and risks as very grave. Moreover, the long-term consequences portend a decline in the global order America has sought and supported, in a bipartisan way, since 1941.These are valid concerns even if the President is right. Perhaps, as he states, this deal is only about Iran’s nuclear program, and it is the most reasonable and peaceful option. Or, perhaps his unspoken grand strategy is right, and it is more reasonable to accept American retrenchment and thus a global concert of powers, liberal and illiberal, that in turn entails regional hegemons. If right on either ground, however, the President should not dismiss a Congressional debate. Several former Obama officials and supporters who cautiously support the deal have worried about the difficulty of achieving even modest results from it. Just as with Wilson’s stratagem to show America and the world that we really believe—along with other leading powers—in diplomacy and peace, Congress faces a difficult duty now. Just as it did with the alluring proposal to end all wars, pressed by a single-minded president with high regard for his own intelligence, Congress today should soberly assess this diplomatic venture so as to help prepare Americans for what comes next, whether or not it blocks U.S. participation.Indeed, both Congress and the President should want to sustain the constitutional balance and complex structure that undergirds America’s successful tradition of grand strategy, which has brought substantial benefits to us and the world through a more peaceful, prosperous, and interconnected globe. This is the constitutional and grand-strategic principle that calls both parties in Congress, and responsible public voices, to think not as partisans or about short-term promises, but rather to provide balanced consideration of such international agreements, especially one with all the weight of a multi-lateral treaty. Our constitutional order requires Congress to serve alongside the executive as the long-term custodian of America’s interests and ideals. This requirement for balance has enabled our rise as the leading liberal power, because, mistakes and all, we ultimately have better internal vetting for our policies and grand strategy than does the competition. Because the Obama strategy for détente with Iran will have major global consequences, unfolding in the short and long terms, it is all the more disconcerting that the President undertook the negotiations—as Wilson did with his great project—with the bare minimum of cooperation with bipartisan leaders in Congress, and now, in the end, is effectively trying to sideline them.Moreover, the failure of the League of Nations project should bolster Congressional resolve to examine this new game-changer calmly. Then, a single leader persuaded his Cabinet and leading states to adopt a grand scheme; even if Congress had endorsed the ceding of American sovereignty in 1919 in a plan for perpetual peace, the Kantian project of collective security likely would have failed. Human nature and the patterns of international affairs would not have conformed to Wilson’s ideas even with an American buy-in. Congress today should consider the sobering lesson that a grand diplomatic stratagem (especially one like the JCPOA with so many moving, interlocking parts) could be, upon consideration, too good to be true. In both centuries, a president’s attractive strategy was promoted as avoiding war and furthering peace through a low-cost, eminently reasonable plan. The earlier strategy assumed that all states, of whatever history and philosophy, could cooperate after a horrible war in order to prevent any others. The current scheme addresses America’s disgust with wars and the burdens of global leadership and assumes, in an echo of Wilson, that leading states with illiberal histories and philosophies could be equal partners in enforcing nuclear non-proliferation and other liberal principles, including curtailment of Iran’s program of terrorism and war. Congressional testimony and debate should help us to understand what we could be getting into, and whether this diplomatic hope is really plausible.The fact that the President long has dismissed concerns of both Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress—and, most recently, sought recognition of the deal from the U.N. Security Council before submitting it to Congress—gives grounds for wondering whether this current blend of presidentialism and internationalism can withstand scrutiny. That said, it would be best for our constitutional order and its record of successful grand strategy if members of Congress now strive for restraint. Congress would ratify the confidence placed in it by the framers if—no matter what the Administration has done or now says—it now resolves to soberly consider the plan’s costs and benefits, risks and gains. Such statesmanlike conduct might persuade future presidents and presidential aspirants not to pursue enlightened presidentialism and diplomacy without the reassurance, and sobriety, typically gained through a constitutionally balanced path.The broader point to consider is that while Wilson sought to remake the world in America’s image, Obama would curtail an American leadership he sees as possessing an arrogance that has served neither America nor the cause of global peace very well. Both presidential visions are significant departures from a prior American consensus. Today the quiet plan for American self-containment effectively reconceives the U.N. Security Council not as a body enforcing liberal principles but largely as a great-power balancing mechanism, a forum for regional hegemons. The Council’s illiberal powers are happy to ratify this détente with Iran, for it confirms a weakening of American stature and liberal principles. This would further confirm the Council’s illiberal shift—its acceptance of Russia’s protection of Syria and invasion of Ukraine and other states; its tolerance of China’s bullying on the high seas; its disregard for the horrors and nuclear ambitions of North Korea; and now, its embrace of the world’s leading terror state by absolving it of repeated violations of Council Resolutions. The EU and its members on the Council support the U.N. ideal of standing for liberal principles while also accommodating power realities, but more fundamentally support a project of self-fulfilling idealism—that peace will arrive if liberal powers emphasize diplomacy and legalism. They won’t stop an American president from retrenching American power.Americans can hope that even if we are replaying elements of the 1910s, we won’t replay the 1920s and 1930s. Since 1941 a bipartisan consensus, difficult but possible to hold, has argued that America’s ideals would not again permit the oscillating extremes of utopian liberal peace and America-First insularism. America instead would pursue, with bipartisanship at home and allies abroad, a prudent internationalism that serves our own ideals and interests: peace, international law, and global commerce. Today the frustrating but impressive complexity of our constitutional order, its demand for balance in making grand strategy, calls us to move with open eyes into decisions that could recapitulate either the nobler or more tragic episodes of our past. President Obama is making a very big gamble, albeit one conveyed as calm and pragmatic. He proposes his own blend of realism and liberal idealism—a realism counseling retrenchment given our relative decline and excessive expenditures, and a liberalism envisioning history’s self-fulfilling trend toward reasonable, enlightened conduct in global affairs. Whether he succeeds or not in passing the low Congressional hurdle he has arranged, Congress could rise to its constitutional duty by making sure that we move into an unsettled future, and possibly a transformational grand strategy, with clarity.
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Published on: July 29, 2015
Iran DealObama to Versailles
It’s Wilson, not Nixon, whom Obama most resembles in his pursuit of the Iran deal.