September 28th, 2013

Obama and Iran: the theater of talk

At CNN, David Rothkopf says he’s skeptical of Iran’s intentions:

There are 34 years of reasons to be skeptical about any negotiations that may emerge from Friday’s historic phone call between President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. There are scores of broken promises and outright lies about Iran’s nuclear program itself. There is Iran’s state sponsorship of terror and its efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East at the expense of peace, human dignity and America’s allies.

Indeed. But it’s still Historic and A Good Thing, according to Rothkopf and so many others:

But there are no reasons not to be appreciative of the significance of the call, the courage it took for President Obama to seek it, or the good common sense that is to be associated with the United States talking to its enemies.

Aside from the deep irony pointed out by John Hinderaker (“President Obama is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not with the House of Representatives”), it reveals a stunning lack of knowledge by a supposed foreign policy expert (I refer of course to Rothkopf, who is the editor-at-large for the publisher of Foreign Policy, not to President Obama).

Here are some of the reasons this call does not necessarily represent “good common sense,” and that its “significance” may be something quite other than Rothkopf suggests: talking with the Iranian president Rouhani is likely to give the Iranian government increased legitimacy in the world’s eyes and allows it to gain points for a moderation it almost certainly lacks. It also buys it time. What’s more, Obama and/or his representatives—if they really believe that meaningful and productive negotiation with Iran (rather than mere window-dressing) are possible by this route—can end up yielding concessions that are against US interests, and actually weakening our own position.

The possible downside is clear, and probably not limited to what I’ve listed. The upside is almost impossible to figure, as Rothkopf himself is quite aware. So, why do it? Because it’s a feather in Obama’s cap among those in this country and elsewhere who believe that talk itself is always a good thing and often a substitute for action or results. When you’re talking to your enemy (and that’s what the Iranian government is and has been since 1979, an enemy) you are showing what a nice person/country you are. And being nice is what it’s all about.

Commenters such as this one at the Rothkopf article understand and are impressed:

Obama has handled Syria perfectly, a serious threat with no war. Now he is close to peace with Iran. Ended Iraq and winding down Afghanistan. Obama is the best foreign policy president in the US in many, many years. Too bad he cannot run for a third term, he would win on foreign policy alone.

So much for Rothkopf’s caveats and reservations. According to that commenter (and so many others), the opening of talks means we are “close to peace with Iran.” An astounding degree of naivete, but not an unusual one these days.

An additional sidenote: the Rothkopf column is entitled “Obama and Rouhani: ‘Jaw jaw’ better than ‘war war’,” and in the last paragraph Rothkopf cites Winston Churchill as having said, in his famous quote, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

I’ve long wondered about that quote; it doesn’t really sound like Churchill, who famously and bitterly criticized the “jaw-jaw” (although he didn’t use the term at the time) of Neville Chamberlain and Hitler in Munich. Also, anyone who knows much about Churchill’s life is aware that Churchill was himself a warrior who did not shy away from war when he felt it was necessary, and so that “always” word in the quote seemed especially suspect to me as well.

So I decided to look up the provenance of the quote, and found that according to Bartleby it was never written nor recorded in any way at the time it was supposedly made, which was at a White House luncheon in June of 1954 (Cold War era; my guess is that Churchill was referring to “jaw-jaw” with the Soviets):

His exact words are not known, because the meetings and the luncheon that day were closed to reporters, but above is the commonly cited version.

His words are quoted as “It is ‘better to jaw-jaw than to war-war,’” in the sub-heading on p. 1 of The New York Times, June 27, 1954, and as “To jaw-jaw always is better than to war-war” on p. 3.

The Washington Post in its June 27 issue, p. 1, has “better to talk jaw to jaw than have war,” and The Star, Washington, D.C., p. 1, a slight variation, “It is better to talk jaw to jaw than to have war.”

So, not only do we not know what Churchill actually said, but only the Times quoted it as including the word “always.” The other two papers give a version that doesn’t really say much more than that talking tends to be preferable to all-out war, a fairly non-controversial and general statement.

13 Responses to “Obama and Iran: the theater of talk”

  1. n.n Says:

    Obama failed in Libya, where he attacked without provocation. He failed in Syria, which only responded when threatened by outside forces, including America. He failed in Egypt, when he supported an illegitimate election. He abandoned Iraq. He abandoned Afghanistan. He armed a cartel insurrection in Mexico. He is corrupting and sabotaging America.

    Where is there evidence of common sense or reasonable action? It seems that Obama acts with impunity unless his liberty is constrained. This man requires strong competing interests in order to prevent him from running amuck.

  2. Ann Says:

    What I find most interesting about using that jaw-jaw quote in the context of Iran-U.S. relations is the unspoken (or unrecognized?) assumption on the part of David Rothkopf that Iran will be a nuclear power — after all Churchill made that remark in the context of the Cold War, which was between two nuclear-armed enemies.

    Even if Rothkopf doesn’t realize this, the Iranians do — see a 2006 article I found at Iranian.com: Better to “Jaw Jaw” than “War War”: Is a nuclear-armed Iran more of an intolerable threat than was a nuclear-armed Stalin or Mao, both of whom America outlasted without war?

    And that’s from Iranians not living in Iran. The website describes itself thusly:

    Launched in 1995, Iranian.com is a vibrant community site for Iranians Worldwide who care deeply about all things Iranian–identity, culture, music, history, politics, literature, and one another.

    With the Islamic Republic of Iran’s suffocating censorship of the Internet and media, its harsh treatment of bloggers, journalists and online activists, Iranian.com serves as a beacon for discussion and counterweight to the forces of contraction. It is a central meeting space where information is openly shared, debated and celebrated–a real time pulse of diverse voices and perspectives across the Iranian Diaspora.

    No stated or implied criticism of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which should tell us something.

  3. Paul in Boston Says:

    The Iranians threaten to destroy Israel once they get a nuclear weapon. I don’t remember the USSR ever boasting that they would destroy another country for the crime of existing.

    The only purpose for developing a hugely expensive nuclear enrichment facility is to produce weapons grade uranium. If they just wanted nuclear power they could save the expense and bother and simply buy reactor grade uranium on the open market. There’s also the question why a net exporter of oil can’t divert some production to the generation of electricity.

    Obama and Rothkopf are delusional about the Iranians. Obama, having had Putin make a fool of him over Syria, is now going to voluntarily surrender to the Iranians in advance so he can keep his eye on the real enemy, those nasty Republicans

  4. Lizzy Says:

    Similar to praising the actions of civilians on flight 93, I think you can praise Haji’s individual action while still lamenting that the government’s response was incompetent.
    Yet the commenter is right to be upset that the MSM chooses to solely praise the the heroes while not holding others accountable for their failure. I remember being irked at the MSM in the days and weeks following the Boston Marathon because they ran all these “hero” stories about civilians acting as first responders and brave recovering victims while completely glossing over the evil they were reacting to and our governments’ culpability in not stopping these known potential terrorists.

  5. Charles Says:

    Reading these comments in which some folks think Obama is handling Syria well, and is now doing the same with Iran.

    Please somebody help me pick my jaw up off the floor – it fell so fast that I think I chip a tooth when my chin hit the floor!

    No, wait, are they being sarcastic? Hopefully they are being sarcastic?

  6. Mike Says:

    Obama is in the process of surrendering to another enemy.

  7. FOAF Says:

    “No, wait, are they being sarcastic? Hopefully they are being sarcastic?”

    Unfortunately, they mean it. They suffer from a different kind of “Obama Derangement Sydrome”.

  8. Eric Says:

    The plan with Syria can be a success … if success is defined correctly.

    With Iraq, Bush faithfully followed the procedure to resolve the Iraq problem that he inherited from Clinton. What did that include? Regime change mandate. A credible military threat that was the next step up from Op Desert Fox’s penultimate bombing – ie, ground invasion. A very high standard of proof for Saddam to meet that had been elevated during the Cllinton administration in response to Saddam’s resistance and exposed evasions. A broad spectrum of requirements under the UNSC resolutions that extended beyond proscribed weapons in order for Saddam to prove Iraq’s rehabilitation.

    So how can Obama succeed with Syria where Bush Senior, Clinton, and Bush ‘failed’ with Iraq? (… said for sake of argument. We succeeded with Iraq under Bush. We achieved every requirement set forth by Clinton to resolve the Iraq problem.)

    Simple – by making Syria’s test easier and more limited than Iraq’s test. Lower the proof standard. Narrow the requirements for Syria, eg, studiously ignore the humanitarian and terrorism issues with Syria that were requirements for Saddam. Avoid placing too heavy a proof burden and presumption of guilt on Syria. Essentially, adopt the position of Saddam’s defenders in 2002-2003, which I guess Obama has done by ceding the lead on Syria to Russia.

  9. Hangtown Bob Says:

    “According to that commenter (and so many others), the opening of talks means we are “close to peace with Iran.” An astounding degree of naivete, but not an unusual one these days.”

    Soon, we will be “at peace” with Iran in the same manner that we are “at peace” with North Korea.
    Having a few nukes lying around is a great way to achieve “peace” with Obama’s Amerika.

  10. blert Says:

    Paul in Boston…

    Iran has centuries of natural gas reserves that she’s been trying to export for decades.

    The cheapest atomic plant ever built would be still uneconomic.

    No nation has ever deployed IRBM without providing atomic warheads.

    Iran is building out a missile force which must eventually be larger than that of France or Britain.

    IRBM lead directly to ICBM.

    With an atomic shield Iran is sure to over run Arabia.

    Putin has to be daft to permit this progression.

    Suicide jihadis + atomics = (no notice) megadeath warfare

    The entire concept of deterrence has to be set aside when dealing with Muslims.

    The record is clear, the ummah will never run out of suicide jihadis.

  11. Don Carlos Says:

    “the courage it took for President Obama to seek it, or the good common sense that is to be associated with the United States talking to its enemies.”

    Courage, not Hussein, is now Obama’s middle name. Such bravery both on and off the golf course.

  12. Linda Says:

    A great big liar, Obama, in talks with the Mother of all liars, Iran. Nothing good will come of this.

  13. Ajax Lessome Says:

    A single phone conversation between the American and Iranian presidents is not a sign that relations will be quickly restored. Any negotiations with Iran should be met with caution and skepticism. Iran’s verbal overtures are contradicted by their actions as exemplified by its backing terrorists in Iraq and Lebanon and assisting Assad in his brutal murder of over 100,000 Syrians. The international community should be extremely worried that Iran is seeking nuclear fuel outside of the approved avenues of low-enriched nuclear fuel rods, but is instead seeking raw mineral that it can enrich itself to weapon grade. Iran poses an even bigger threat, since its nuclear arms stockpile is thought to be the largest in the Middle East, with longer-range missiles currently in the planning stages. If Iran wants nuclear power for peaceful uses, it has to submit to inspection and buy fuel rods and not enrich its own. Rouhani is probably just buying Iran’s nuclear engineers as time to get closer to their goal of a weapon that would destabilize the Middle East. At that point, Khamenei and Rouhani will have achieved their objective of a nuclear armed Iran with a stable economy and regional dominance. Actions speak louder than words and so far Iran has merely engaged in rhetoric and nothing more. Pursuing a diplomatic solution with Iran is desirable, but we need to see Iran change its ways not just its words. Iran also needs to clean up its human rights record and halt the barbaric practice of public hangings, as well as reopen dissident news media and release political and religious prisoners. Iran also needs to halt its foreign adventures in supporting terror groups and smuggling arms in places like Syria. I am highly doubtful that this will occur given his long and loyal service to the regime. Sanctions can be quickly lifted if Iran’s leaders, especially Khamenei, took some of these steps, but I am not hopeful of such a change in direction. Sanctions shouldn’t be lifted simply based on promises, but on concrete action.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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