What could go wrong with a film directed by Nicholas Ray – the guy who gave us the brooding James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause – and starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven? In 1963 we found out – 55 Days at Peking was a commercial disaster. It cost seventeen million to make – an enormous sum back then – and finally grossed ten million, and then it disappeared. This one doesn’t even pop up on basic cable. It’s the heroic tale of the siege of the foreign legations’ compounds in Peking (now Beijing of course) during the Boxer Rebellion, in the last two years of the nineteenth century.
Who cares? The Chinese didn’t want us there. They had their reasons – and watching all the heroic white embassy folks from the European countries and the United States hold out against the devious and inherently evil little yellow people, if they even are people, it’s easy to see why. This is a deeply racist film – and it’s boring. Siege warfare is boring. Can you hold on and hold out until reinforcements arrive or the other side just gives up and goes away? You win if you end up where you started, holding onto what you had in the first place. In between, you wait, there are sudden attacks, then you wait some more, there are more sudden attacks, and then you wait some more. No one wanted to watch fifty-five days of that. There was no payoff. There was only survival, after a whole lot of talk.
Yeah, yeah – live in Hollywood for over twenty years and you end up thinking of life in terms of obscure old movies – but things are about to get similarly boring in our politics. President Obama made his deal with Iran and the sixty-day siege has started:
President Obama eagerly took on critics of the Iran nuclear deal on Wednesday, inviting question after question on an agreement he suggested that many of his political adversaries had not even read.
Mr. Obama used a formal East Room news conference to begin what White House officials said would be an aggressive effort by the president and his top advisers over the next 60 days to combat critics in both parties and to sell the Iran deal to members of Congress, the public and allies in the region.
While Mr. Obama is expected to win enough votes to sustain a veto of any legislation rejecting the deal, his goal over the next two months is to persuade enough Democrats to support the accord so that he can paint opponents as driven by politics rather than diplomacy.
He appeared to relish the fight as he adopted a bring-it-on demeanor and invited reporters to ask him more about the deal.
“Have we exhausted Iran questions here?” he asked at one point. “I think there’s a helicopter that’s coming, but I really am enjoying this Iran debate.”
He then disregarded a prepared list of reporters to call on and, like a boxer beckoning someone to throw a punch, asked for more questions on Iran from the room.
He does want to make this an action movie, but he is under siege:
As Mr. Obama spoke, his critics continued to hammer against it. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, one of the deal’s most ardent critics, said it represented a “nuclear agreement with an outlaw regime” and predicted that “the American people will repudiate this deal and Congress will kill the deal with a veto-proof majority.” … The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC denounced the deal as one that “would facilitate rather than prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and would further entrench and empower the leading state sponsor of terror.”
“Proponents of the proposed agreement will argue that the only alternative to this agreement is military conflict,” AIPAC said in a statement calling on Congress to reject the deal and to insist on a better one. “In fact, the reverse is true. A bad agreement such as this will invite instability and nuclear proliferation. It will embolden Iran and may encourage regional conflict.”
The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America issued a joint statement saying they had scrutinized the pact and found it “seriously wanting,” calling the inspection regime insufficient and the billions of dollars in sanctions for relief for Iran unacceptable. They said they would be mobilizing rabbis and synagogues across the nation to oppose the measure and urge lawmakers to reject it.
Obama was having none of that:
In the past, Mr. Obama has often appeared defensive or defeated as he faced questions about the failure of his health care website or other foreign policy challenges. But in this case he avidly raised and dismissed many objections without even being asked. For those who argue that the administration could have forced the Iranians to agree to a deal that would leave Iran with no nuclear capacity, “there is nobody who thinks that Iran would or could ever accept that,” he said.
And for those who say that the current sanctions on Iran are better than the negotiated deal, Mr. Obama said that without a diplomatic agreement the present sanctions regime would break down.
“Without a deal, the international sanctions regime will unravel with little ability to re-impose them,” he said.
And then he got to the heart of the matter:
The president did concede that the people of Israel – where the deal has been met with hostility and skepticism from across the political spectrum – have “legitimate concerns” about whether Iran emerges with a greater ability to back terrorism and disrupt its neighbors.
“You have a large country, with a significant military, that has proclaimed that Israel shouldn’t exist, that has denied the Holocaust, that has financed Hezbollah,” Mr. Obama said, speaking of Iran. “There are very good reasons why Israelis are nervous about Iran’s position in the world, generally.”
But Mr. Obama insisted that “those threats are compounded if Iran gets a nuclear weapon.”
And there’s that other issue:
With a better deal impossible, Mr. Obama said that the only viable alternative to the negotiated settlement his administration had presented was war. And he challenged critics of the deal to acknowledge that what they really wanted was a military solution.
“And if the alternative is that we should bring Iran to heel through military force, then those critics should say so, and that will be an honest debate,” Mr. Obama said.
And the point here is that you take what you can get:
Mr. Obama said he hoped the agreement would pave the way to a more constructive relationship with Iran. But he rejected the idea that the deal deserved to be opposed because it failed to address Iran’s support for terrorism or its destabilizing activities in the Middle East.
“My hope is that building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivizes them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative,” Mr. Obama said. “But we’re not counting on it.”
The agreement, he said, “solves one particular problem,” which is the risk of Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
So the siege begins. These basic issues will be debated over and over until all of America is bored to tears. Can Obama hold on and hold out and survive the siege, to end up exactly where he is now, with an agreement? He probably can, but Obama knows how these things go:
He finally said he had to go, but promised to return to the subject of the Iran deal. “I think we’ve hit the big themes, but I – but I promise you I will – I will address this again, all right?” he said. “I suspect this is not the last that we’ve heard of this debate.”
It will be more of the same for sixty days, the amount of time Congress has to approve or disapprove this deal – but this isn’t that simple, as Greg Sargent explains:
Republicans are very, very confident that they have the political advantage in the coming battle in Congress over the historic Iran deal announced yesterday. Multiple news reports today tell us that Republicans are gearing up their “attack plan,” and those reports are overflowing with GOP bravado.
For instance, the Hill tells us that Republicans may hold a preliminary vote to approve the Iran deal, on the theory that this will divide Democrats, since some of them will see this as a “tough vote.”
But here’s the question: Once all the procedural smoke clears, do Republicans really want an endgame in which they succeeded in blocking the deal? Do they actually want to scuttle it?
Perhaps many of them genuinely do want that. But here’s a prediction: as this battle develops, some Republicans may privately conclude that it would be better for them politically if they fail to stop it. The Iran debate may come to resemble the one over the anti-Obamacare lawsuit that also recently fell short.
Had they killed Obamacare there would be those six or seven million folks who would have suddenly lost their new health insurance and they be pretty damned angry. Sometimes winning is losing, and on this Iran deal, Sargent cites former Obama administration official Dennis Ross spelling out the consequences this way:
Opponents need to explain what happens if the rest of the world accepts this deal, Iran says it is ready to implement it – and Congress blocks it. Will the European Union, which explicitly commits in the agreement to lift sanctions once Iran has fulfilled its main nuclear responsibilities, not do so because Congress says no? Can sanctions really be sustained in these circumstances, particularly if the Iranians don’t increase their enrichment and say they will observe the deal? Could we be faced with a world in which the sanctions regime collapses, Iran gets its windfall and is only two months from breakout, and there is little on-ground visibility into its program?
Sargent goes further:
Some Congressional Republicans are also quietly mulling another possibility: What if our allies blame them for tanking the deal they support? The New York Times points out that GOP repudiation of the deal “was a blow not only to Mr. Obama but also to conservative leaders the party usually backs, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.” And note this telling moment from GOP Senator Bob Corker: “In the next couple of months, the international community is going to be focused on Congress. I got that,” Mr. Corker said in an interview. “I understand the position we’re in.”
We could end up with a fake siege:
Just as Republicans realized that “winning” the lawsuit against Obamacare could force them to own the consequences of their “victory,” and increase pressure them to specify concrete alternative courses of action, they may conclude it’s a good thing that the Congressional oversight mechanism negotiated by Senator Corker (which they supported, by the way) makes it so hard for them to “win” by scuttling the Iran deal.
Kevin Drum adds this:
The idea here is that if Congress kills the deal, several things will happen. First, the rest of the signatories (UK, France, Germany, EU, China, and Russia) will still lift their sanctions if Iran meets its end of the bargain. So that means the sanctions regime will effectively disintegrate. Second, our allies will blame us for tanking the deal. Third, Iran will have an excuse for pushing the boundaries of the agreement and remaining closer to nuclear breakout than they would be if the deal were intact.
And Republicans would take the bulk of the blame for all this. Do they really want that? This is an international agreement, after all. Conservatives like Angela Merkel, David Cameron, and Vladimir Putin have approved it. If we don’t, will they conclude that the US is no longer a partner worth negotiating with? These are things worth pondering, especially if Republicans expect one of their own to be president eighteen months from now.
Of course there is the tug in the other direction, as Peter Beinart explains:
When critics focus incessantly on the gap between the present deal and a perfect one, what they’re really doing is blaming Obama for the fact that the United States is not omnipotent. This isn’t surprising given that American omnipotence is the guiding assumption behind contemporary Republican foreign policy. Ask any GOP presidential candidate except Rand Paul what they propose doing about any global hotspot and their answer is the same: be tougher. America must take a harder line against Iran’s nuclear program, against ISIS, against Bashar al-Assad, against Russian intervention in Ukraine and against Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea.
If you believe American power is limited, this agenda is absurd. America needs Russian and Chinese support for an Iranian nuclear deal. U.S. officials can’t simultaneously put maximum pressure on both Assad and ISIS, the two main rivals for power in Syria today. They must decide who the lesser evil is. Accepting that American power is limited means prioritizing. It means making concessions to regimes and organizations you don’t like in order to put more pressure on the ones you fear most. That’s what Franklin Roosevelt did when allying with Stalin against Hitler. It’s what Richard Nixon did when he reached out to communist China in order to increase America’s leverage over the U.S.S.R.
And it’s what George W. Bush refused to do after 9/11, when he defined the “war on terror” not merely as a conflict against al-Qaeda but as a license to wage war, or cold war, against every anti-American regime supposedly pursuing weapons of mass destruction. This massive overestimation of American power underlay the war in Iraq, which has taken the lives of a half-million Iraqis and almost 4,500 Americans, and cost the United States over $2 trillion. And it underlay Bush’s refusal to negotiate with Iran, even when Iran made dramatic overtures to the United States. Negotiations, after all, require mutual concessions, which Bush believed were unnecessary; if America just kept flexing its muscles, the logic went, Iran’s regime would collapse.
Is that so? Oh well. The siege is on, so that argument will be made again and again. Siege warfare really is boring, but Steve Benen points to a new take on this:
In a variety of public events during his two terms as president, George W. Bush seemed to enjoy repeating a joke about his unimposing intellect. “I remind people that, like, when I’m with Condoleezza Rice, I say, ‘She’s the Ph.D. and I’m the C student and just look at who’s the president and who’s the adviser,'” he’d say.
The line always worked – Republican audiences invariably laughed and applauded – though the rhetoric struck me as a mistake… it’s not exactly a positive message to young people: study, get good grades, and work hard in school, and someday you too can take orders from a guy who struggled to graduate.
But Bush’s rhetoric was repeated for a reason. The Republican president recognized the value of anti-intellectualism in some conservative circles, and he exploited it to make himself look better in partisan settings.
And that led to Jeb Bush, in New Hampshire, saying this:
You don’t have to be the world’s policeman, but we have to be the world’s leader – and there’s a huge difference. This guy, this president and Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry, when someone disagrees with their nuanced approach – where it’s all kind of so sophisticated it makes no sense – you know what I’m saying? Big-syllable words and lots of fancy conferences and meetings – but we’re not leading, that creates chaos, it creates a more dangerous world.
That’s a novel if somewhat indirect attack on Obama’s deal with Iran. It’s complicated. It’s nuanced, if not sophisticated. It uses big words. Obama uses big words. That’s not leadership!
Benen is not impressed:
For example, if Bush can explain the “huge difference” between leading the world and being the world’s policeman, I’d love to hear him explore this in detail. For that matter, listening to any Bush lament international “chaos” in the wake of the Bush/Cheney era is pretty hard to swallow. And yes, U.S. officials attend plenty of “fancy conferences and meetings,” but while Jeb sees this as proof that “we’re not leading,” sometimes, at “fancy conferences and meetings,” the United States is both leading and advancing our interests.
Even putting this aside, though, listening to Bush complain about “big-syllable words” is a bit much.
The anti-intellectualism itself rankles, but just as important is the fact that Jeb Bush had cultivated a very different kind of public persona. The Florida Republican has reveled in reporters calling him a policy “wonk.” He’s described himself as a “total nerd” who – get this – reads books.
It’s almost as if there’s an implicit argument Bush wants voters to understand: “Among my siblings, I’m the smart one.” This posturing may not be rooted in fact, but it’s helped create what Gail Collins described as Jeb’s “aura of competence.”
It’s a reputation the former governor seems eager to shed.
Obama, on the other hand, says he’s just being a good Republican. That’s what he told the New York Times’ Thomas Freidman:
“You know, I have a lot of differences with Ronald Reagan, but where I completely admire him was his recognition that if you were able to verify an agreement that [was negotiated] with the evil empire that was hell-bent on our destruction and was a far greater existential threat to us than Iran will ever be,” then it would be worth doing, Mr. Obama said. “I had a lot of disagreements with Richard Nixon, but he understood there was the prospect, the possibility, that China could take a different path. You test these things, and as long as we are preserving our security capacity – as long as we are not giving away our ability to respond forcefully, militarily, where necessary to protect our friends and our allies – that is a risk we have to take. It is a practical, common-sense position. It’s not naïve; it’s a recognition that if we can in fact resolve some of these differences, without resort to force, that will be a lot better for us and the people of that region.”
That may be too nuanced for Jeb, but it wasn’t for Nixon and Reagan. And Obama didn’t use all that many big words.
And what about those pesky Chinese devils that so beleaguered Charlton Heston in the odd 1963 movie? They’re already using this deal:
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the Iran nuclear deal could serve as a blueprint for negotiations with North Korea.
Speaking at a press conference in Beijing, Yi said the “nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula” now has an “active model” in the deal reached Tuesday in Vienna, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.
Wang said the most important implication of the Iran nuclear deal was evidence that the resolution of a complicated situation was possible, “however difficult the problem.”
Beijing, Wang added, had a “distinctly constructive effect” on the nuclear deal, but he did not elaborate further on China’s role.
The Chinese foreign minister said the deal is significant because it embodies a “win-win” spirit espoused by all sides, and the emphasis on conversation and compromise could be the key to resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Obama may be under siege, but the reinforcements are on the way. Everyone but Benjamin Netanyahu is with Obama. At the end of these sixty days the deal will stand. It’s just that the rest of us will have to watch the dumb movie. And by the way, the other siege movie of 1963 was Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – with more action and less talk. And the birds just moved on.