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Obama’s Unpresidential Iran Speech

The speech was mean-spirited and dishonest ─ and may have been counterproductive.

By Victor Davis Hanson     •     National Review Online

Obama 102President Obama’s speech last week advocating congressional approval of the Iran deal was mostly made-up history mixed with invective. Indeed, he talked far more roughly about his congressional partners than he did about our Iranian enemies, who have worked so hard to kill Americans over the last 35 years.

Obama assured us that in the past a “nonproliferation treaty . . . prohibited nations from acquiring nuclear weapons.” One wonders, then, how India, China, North Korea, and Pakistan ever obtained them, given they were all forbidden to do so under “new agreements” forged by Democratic and Republican presidents. Is there much logic in the assertion that the intelligence was flawed when we went to war with what proved to be a non-nuclear Iraq, but that we can trust the same intelligence agencies to apprise us precisely of the nuclear status of Iran?

“After two years of negotiations,” Obama went on, “we have achieved a detailed arrangement that permanently prohibits Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. It cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb.”

The deal does no such thing. Iran can still possess some enriched uranium. It can still operate centrifuges. It is not subject to anytime, anywhere inspections. And it will be almost impossible to restore international sanctions should Iran be caught cheating. As in the case of Obamacare, most of Obama’s pre-negotiation assurances are now either forgotten or ignored.

Obama, as is his wont, derides any who disagree with him: “Between now and the congressional vote in September, you are going to hear a lot of arguments against this deal, backed by tens of millions of dollars in advertising. And if the rhetoric in these ads and the accompanying commentary sounds familiar, it should, for many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.”

Yet even as Obama spoke those words, an array of Hollywood liberals was appearing in commercials drumming up support for the treaty. China and Russia are said to be lobbying senators to vote for it. When the president drones on ad nauseam about those “same people” who “argued for the war,” whom exactly does he include in the stable of Iraq War supporters — neocons like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Fareed Zakaria, and Thomas Friedman? When Obama blasts the “tens of millions of dollars in advertising,” with suggestions of the nefarious role of the “same people” who wanted the Iraq War, I think we are meant to understand the old wink-and-nod dual-loyalty trope about American supporters of Israel.

Obama claimed that the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq was “a preference for military action over diplomacy.” Yet the Iraq War was authorized by both houses of Congress, with a majority of Democratic senators voting in favor, and the resolution contained 23 writs of action — all following up, in the post-9/11 climate, on the regime-change and liberation acts signed into law by former president Bill Clinton. The Bush administration spent months at the United Nations seeking to persuade Security Council members France and Russia (each enjoying valuable oil concessions from Saddam Hussein) to authorize military action in order to enforce U.N. sanctions. In contrast, Obama went to war in Libya without congressional approval. By bombing Moammar Qaddafi into extinction (as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, “We came, we saw, he died”), Obama exceeded the U.N. authorization, which limited U.S. action to humanitarian support and no-fly zones. If Hillary wanted to quote classical Latin concerning the Libyan aftermath, she would have done better to invoke Tacitus: “Where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

The most disingenuous element of Obama’s entire speech was his assertion that “More than a decade later, we still live with the consequences of the decision to invade Iraq . . . Today, Iraq remains gripped by sectarian conflict, and the emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq has now evolved into ISIL.”

When Obama entered office in January 2009, post-surge Iraq was quiet. By the end of his first year in office, three Americans had been killed. In 2010, fewer Americans were lost in Iraq each month than in accidents involving the U.S. military. That is why Joe Biden thought Iraq would be the administration’s “greatest achievement,” and Obama himself declared the country “stable and self-reliant.”

Pulling all U.S. troops out at the end of 2011, against the advice of almost all sober military and diplomatic experts, achieved the desired talking point for the 2012 reelection campaign, but collapsed the country and birthed ISIL. Obama’s demagoguery is as if President Dwight Eisenhower had pulled all U.S. troops out of South Korea in 1955 to prep for his 1956 reelection campaign — and then blamed the ensuing North Korean victory and devastation of South Korea on Harry Truman for entering the Korean War in the first place in 1950.

Obama, again, blames George W. Bush for most of the problems he himself has caused. For instance, he claims that the Iranians started spinning centrifuges while Bush was in office, conveniently forgetting two key points. First, as a senator, Obama voted to deny the Bush administration the ability to use military force to deter Iran, and he voted against the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, despite its then-recent efforts to kill Americans in Iraq. Second, far more centrifuges have come on line during the Obama administration than did during the Bush administration.

What mostly brought Iran to the negotiating table was not skillful Obama diplomacy, but the ongoing increases in global gas and oil supplies, and the resulting collapse of oil prices, which assuaged our Asian and European allies’ worries about skyrocketing oil prices should Iranian oil go off the market. The prospect of a glut persuaded them to join in sanctioning Iran. The plunge in oil prices that strengthened the Obama administration’s hand came about as a result of private exploration in the U.S. that occurred despite rather than because of Obama’s efforts.

When Obama claims that so far his diplomacy has curtailed Iranian enrichment, he has no idea whether that will prove to be an accurate assessment, given the secrecy of the Iranian project and the Iranians’ refusal to allow inspectors full and open access to their facilities. But if Obama is correct that the interim deal worked so well, and if sanctions brought Iran to the table, why in the world would he discard the status quo?

When he details all the things Iran must and will certainly do, why would he think it is any more likely that Iran will follow the letter of the treaty than that Qassem Suleimani — a high-ranking Iranian general and commander of the Quds Force, which carries out terrorist operations — would obey international travel bans? In fact, shortly after listening to Obama’s speech, Suleimani brazenly broke the ban and traveled to see Putin, apparently to negotiate Russian arms sales with his newly released $150 billion in formerly embargoed funds.

Obama says there is “daily access” to Iran’s “key” nuclear sites. But what if Iran declares a site not “key” and therefore off limits? Obama likewise assures us, “This access can be with as little as 24 hours’ notice.” Does anyone really believe that? Not Obama himself, for he immediately qualified that with, “And while the process for resolving a dispute about access can take up to 24 days, once we’ve identified a site that raises suspicion, we will be watching it continuously until inspectors get in.” If a 24-day wait is no hindrance to inspection, why then have it at all? The definition of appeasement is to accept demands from an aggressor and then declare that the resulting concessions were of no real importance in the first place.

Obama insists: “Congressional rejection of this deal leaves any U.S. administration that is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with one option, another war in the Middle East. I say this not to be provocative, I am stating a fact.”

That is not a fact. And it is shameful to suggest that it is. Again, the alternative to the deal is not war now, but rather continued sanctions, and a continuation of the increased oil production by the U.S. and the Gulf monarchies that brought a cash-strapped Iran to the table. Both measures could be ratcheted up even further. Obama talks of a “game changer” — another regrettable selection of words when we remember the history of that phrase in the context of the Syrian pink line. Iran was getting weaker by the day even as Obama’s tenure was running out. The urgency came from both Iran and Obama. The former was fearful that it would be both poorer and weaker when a possibly very different president takes office in 2017; the latter in desperation was looking for a legacy after the detritus of reset, Libya, ISIS, Syria, and the growing estrangement from long-term allies such as Egypt and Israel.

Obama assumes Tehran will spend its impending windfall on domestic projects, and told us that such investment “improves the economy and benefits the lives of the Iranian people” — as if theocratic authoritarians are sober and judicious officials who feel that improving health care or building freeways would best serve their interests, rather than bullying neighbors and thus raising their own military and political statures. From Hitler to Saddam, there is little evidence that dictators think like the technocrats of social democracies.

Obama reassures us that Iran’s “conventional capabilities will never compare to Israel’s.” Israel is a country of 8 million people, Iran one of nearly 78 million — with appendages in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the West Bank, and Lebanon that together perhaps already have more conventional missiles pointed at Israel than Israel has bombers that can reach them.

Obama downplays Iran’s Hitlerian rhetoric: “Just because Iranian hardliners chant ‘Death to America’ does not mean that that’s what all Iranians believe.” That is an adolescent remark — analogous to saying that just because Hitler promised a “final solution of the Jewish question” did not mean that all Germans shared his anti-Semitism. What would it matter even if such an assertion were true?

Even if a million Iranians once again hit the streets to protest the theocracy — a movement shunned in 2009 by Obama himself — they would probably not be able to sway the policies of their fascist government. Whether most Germans disagreed with the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policy in 1939 was about as relevant as whether Iranians today privately object to the theocrats’ rhetoric.

President Obama should know better. The problem is not that Iranian “hardliners” are chanting “Death to America.” Rather, to take one example, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in good Mein Kampf fashion, has just published a book of 400-plus pages outlining the de facto end of Israel.

It is beneath a president of the United States to equate U.S. congressional representatives with theocratic fascists. But that comparison is about what Obama offered when he declared, “It’s those hardliners who are most comfortable with the status quo. It’s those hardliners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”

It is as if Obama’s affinities to the Khamenei clique trump those to, say, Senator Marco Rubio or Senator John McCain.
One wonders whether Obama includes in his weird Iran/U.S. Congress “common cause” the man designated to succeed Harry Reid as the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, who, after listening to Obama’s speech, promptly came out against the pact — to the rejoicing, no doubt, of Iranian “hardliners.” Or are the allies of the hardliners the majority of the American people, who also oppose the Obama deal? And what about the Chinese and Russian leaders who wholeheartedly support Obama’s deal, whether out of the desire for lucre, or for humiliation of the U.S. in the present and in the future — or both? Does Obama envision himself and the Iranian theocracy allied against American and Iranian “hardliners” — as if his affinities to the Khamenei clique trump those to, say, Senator Marco Rubio or Senator John McCain?

It is rich from Obama to declare that critics of the deal are playing politics and endangering U.S. credibility: this, from a man who, as senator, in the middle of the critical surge in Iraq in 2007 declared it a failure and advocated pulling out all U.S. troops in the spring of 2008. It was Obama who destroyed U.S. credibility by setting empty deadlines with Iran, empty step-over lines with Russia, and an empty red line with Syria, while promising to shepherd Libya to a stable postwar government, a policy whose natural trajectory ended in Benghazi.

All the contortions that Barack Obama has offered about Iraq — damning the invasion in 2003; claiming in 2004 that he had no policy differences on Iraq with the Bush administration; declaring in 2007 that the surge would fail; demanding in 2008 as a presidential candidate that all U.S. troops be brought home; assuring the world in 2011 that Iraq was “stable” and “self-reliant” as he pulled out all American peacekeepers; reassuring the world in 2014 that Iraq’s ISIS was not a real threat; and then deciding in 2015 that it was, as he ordered forces back in — have been predicated on perceived political advantage. That also explains why the deal was not presented as a treaty requiring a two-thirds vote of the Senate, as the Constitution outlines.

The final irony? President Obama’s rambling and mean-spirited speech may well achieve the opposite effect of its apparent intention. It may persuade some members of his own party that they could do a lot better than joining a dishonest deal and a disingenuous deal-maker.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.