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.