The Done Deal

We will have to fight another war in the Middle East, unless we won’t. The Sunday morning talk shows were filled with this sort of thing:

Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz has defended his plan to “carpet bomb” civilian areas occupied by ISIS in the face of critics who have said the idea was unworkable and illegal.

During a December GOP primary debate, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer pointed out that Cruz had said that the U.S. should “carpet-bomb ISIS into oblivion” to find out whether “sand can glow in the dark.”

Cruz replied: “What it means is using overwhelming air power to utterly and completely destroy ISIS.”

On Sunday, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked Cruz to respond to military experts who have insisted that “carpet bombing ISIS would never work.”

In fact, former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, Robert Scales, argued that carpet bombing was “just one of those phrases that people with no military experience throw around.”

The question was why Ted Cruz, with no military experience at all, thought he knew better than all the military folks, and the answer was this:

“I will apologize to no one with how vigorous I will be winning the war on terror,” Cruz replied. “We will start by having a president who will acknowledge our enemy, say it by its name, which President Obama and Hillary Clinton refuse to do.”

Damn it, use the word Islamic! Say Islam! Islam! Islam! Islam! Cruz didn’t actually rant like that – that was implied – but he does want the sand to glow in the dark:

“And you want to know what carpet bombing means?” he continued. “Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of Desert Storm. In 1991, we had roughly 8,000 planes. Today, we have 4,000. Our Air Force has dropped in half. In 1991, we had 591 ships in our Navy. Today, we have 272. It’s dropped nearly in half. In 1991, we had over a third more soldiers in our Army.”

“And we were launching 1,100 air attacks a day. We were carpet bombing them. And after 37 days of 1,100 air attacks a day, our troops went in in a day and a half and mopped up the remnants of the Iraqi Army because that’s the effect of carpet bombing.”

That was too much for even a Fox News host:

Wallace, however, noted that the U.S. military leaders insist that carpet bombing was never used in the first Gulf War.

“We did precision striking,” Wallace said. “In addition – if I may – the Iraqi Army was all massed by itself in the Kuwaiti desert. We’re now talking about ISIS soldiers who are not massed, they are embedded in Mosul, and they’re embedded in Raqqa with civilians.”

Cruz snorted. He would have none of that. Our military leaders were wimps – he’d teach them a thing or two – because now we have a “photo-op foreign policy” under Obama, whatever that means. He didn’t explain. It was time to kick some ass. That’s all there was to it.

Cruz seems to miss Dick Cheney, who also had no military experience at all – he did dodge the draft in the Vietnam years with multiple deferments – but who almost singlehandedly gave us the Iraq War, because he knew far better than the likes of Colin Powell and all that, with his brilliant military mind. Chris Wallace, however, didn’t get a chance to ask about Cheney. The Sunday morning talk shows were interrupted. Someone butted in:

President Obama on Sunday defended his historic nuclear accord with Iran as proof that “smart, patient and disciplined” diplomacy can improve relations with a longtime foe, even as his administration announced new sanctions related to Tehran’s ­ballistic-missile program.

His declaration followed the lifting of many of the harshest international economic sanctions against Iran and confirmation that Iranian authorities had freed imprisoned Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and four other Americans.

Yeah, he pulled it off:

The president’s remarks Sunday at the White House capped a dramatic two-day stretch that highlighted the complex and uncertain nature of the United States’ new relationship with one of its oldest and most determined enemies.

Obama’s critics have pilloried the nuclear deal, casting it as a capitulation to Iran’s ruling clerics and evidence of the president’s weakness on the world stage. Obama discussed the deal in a tone more sober than celebratory and acknowledged that “profound differences” remain between the two countries.

“The United States has never been afraid to pursue diplomacy with our adversaries,” he said, citing the examples of past presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

This was fairly simple. Diplomacy works. There’s seldom a need to go kick ass, but that doesn’t make us wimps:

Even as Obama spoke optimistically of a new era, there were reminders that the relationship between the United States and Iran remains dangerous and fraught. Once the flight with the former prisoners was on its way, the ­administration announced new sanctions related to participation in Iran’s ballistic-missile program. The measures apply to only 11 individuals and companies and are separate from the international sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program that were lifted Saturday.

Iran’s effort to develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead “poses a significant threat to regional and global security, and it will continue to be subject to international sanctions,” said Adam J. Szubin, the acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence in the Treasury Department.

We’re not rolling over here, for a reason:

Obama highlighted the ongoing tensions between Iran and the United States. “We remain steadfast in opposing Iran’s de­stabilizing behavior elsewhere,” Obama said, “including its threats against Israel and our gulf partners, and its support for violent proxies in places like Syria and Yemen.”

In short, Iran is still a pain in the ass, but no longer a nuclear pain in the ass, and that’s something to work with:

The big question for Obama and his successor is whether the United States and Iran can build on their fledgling relationship. The long and often-tense negotiations between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also have opened up a channel for the United States to keep talking with its longtime foe.

Is that a good thing? Slate’s Fred Kaplan points out that the answer to that depends on your political affiliations:

There’s no point listening to Republicans rail against President Obama’s policies. No matter what he does, his foreign policy is feckless, clueless, or downright treasonous according to GOP talking points. A case in point is the past week’s diplomatic feats with Iran. First, a crisis over the seizure of two U.S. patrol boats, which had trespassed into Iranian waters, was settled peacefully in a day. Then, the Iranians were declared in compliance with the nuclear deal that was signed in July, as a result of which decades-long economic sanctions were lifted. Finally, five Americans were released from Iranian jails as part of a prisoner exchange.

And yet the leading Republican presidential candidates denounced these deals – which would be impressive achievements in any commander-in-chief’s record-book – as signs of weakness, cowardice, and worse.

In August, when Obama was making a strong pitch for the Iran nuclear deal, he told a group of columnists in an on-the-record session, “If I presented a cure for cancer, getting legislation passed to move that forward would be a nail-biter.” That understates what the response would be in today’s eve-of-Iowa frenzy. The row of GOP contenders would denounce the cure as a jobs-killer (all those nurses out of a job at Sloan-Kettering) and an aggravation of the housing crisis (all those people, who should have died, crowding the market).

But that’s not what we have here:

Sen. Marco Rubio wrote an op-ed for RedState, denouncing the whole complex of Iranian-American deals as “appeasement.” This is the stuff of rhetorical hot air. What territory or interests did the United States cede in any of these deals? Rubio, Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, and others denounce the $150 billion that Obama is “giving” to Iran as part of the nuclear deal – not acknowledging, in some cases perhaps not knowing, that the money (more like $100 billion, minus $50 billion that will instantly go to pay off debts) is Iran’s own assets, which were frozen in response to Iran’s nuclear program. Now that the program is largely dismantled, as required the assets are unfrozen. That’s what the nuclear deal – negotiated by the United States, Iran, and five other powers (England, France, Russia, China, and Germany) – was all about.

For its part of the deal, Iran was required not merely to freeze its nuclear program but to substantially roll it back. Specifically, it had to dismantle two-thirds of its centrifuges and [shed] 98 percent of its enriched uranium, to fill its Arak plutonium reactor with concrete, and, for verification, to allow international inspectors unprecedented access to its facilities. The big news this weekend, in this regard, is that the International Atomic Energy Agency—which monitors compliance with the deal – announced that, at this stage of the deal, Iran has fulfilled its end of the bargain, ahead of schedule.

That’s what triggered the lifting of economic sanctions. (Rubio wrote that the release “rewards bad behavior,” but in fact it rewards good behavior.) And officials acknowledge that, while the prisoner-exchange was not an explicit part of the deal, side-room conversations during the nuclear talks kept the issue alive and accelerated progress, so that, when the time came, no extraneous issues would impede sanctions-relief.

We didn’t lose here, but the Republicans did:

The events of the past week reveal a few things about the Republican critique of Obama’s foreign policy. First, it is completely uninformed on substantive grounds: The jeremiads against the nuclear accord in particular reflect a deep-seated ignorance of what’s in the nuclear deal. Second, it is completely uninformed on procedural grounds: The candidates know nothing about the diplomatic back-and-forth that produced the nuclear deal, the prisoner release, or the release earlier this week of the 10 U.S. sailors who’d somehow crossed into Iranian territorial waters. Trump rails against the “stupid” deals concocted by “political hacks”: If the deals were what he says they are, he might have a point. But they aren’t, and he doesn’t.

It’s time to get serious:

The centuries-long history of international relations shows that it’s possible for adversaries- even, during the Soviet-American Cold War, bitter foes who have the ability to incinerate each other in a matter of minutes – to negotiate deals that benefit the security interests of both sides, and to do so in ways that might open up avenues of accord in other realms worth exploring.

This is what Obama’s approach to foreign policy – which isn’t so different from the approach of many past presidents – has wrought this week. It’s an approach and an outcome that most of the Republican candidates not only couldn’t pull off but explicitly, if bizarrely, condemn.

Well, the condemnations were severe:

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), for instance, said Saturday that while the speaker was “glad” the Americans were released, he awaited further information on “the ransom paid for their freedom.” And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” called the deal “problematic,” saying it constituted “negotiating with terrorists.”

Ashlee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman, stood by the use of the word “ransom” Sunday, after Obama confirmed the U.S. would either free or cease attempts to prosecute a spate of people accused of violating sanctions on Iran and separately settled a longstanding Iranian claim over the seizure of funds the country used to purchase American military equipment in the years before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

“The facts speak for themselves. In exchange for the freedom of four Americans unjustly imprisoned, the president is granting clemency to 7 people charged with sanctions violations, giving up the hunt for another 14 people charged with sanctions violations, and is giving Iran a roughly $1.7 billion cash infusion,” she said.

To be clear, Iran paid in full for that military hardware we never delivered, because they had their Islamic revolution. We kept the money, all of it, and delivered nothing at all. We’re returning their money. We’re not cheats. Should we be?

Opinions may vary on that – grabbing someone’s money and delivering nothing may be a clever business model – but some of this was just odd:

“I think it’s a very dangerous precedent,” Cruz said. “The result of this – every bad actor on earth has been told go capture an American. If you want terrorists out of the jail, capture an American, and President Obama is in the ‘let’s make a deal’ business.”

However, precedent is actually on President Obama’s side, says a nonpartisan expert on foreign relations and terrorism who points out there is a long, bipartisan history of American presidents negotiating deals to free prisoners with enemy states.

Of Obama’s GOP critics, “They’re better politicians than they are historians,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a Rand Corp. expert who has written about how governments handled prisoner exchanges and hostage crises.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” called the released Americans “hostages” who were traded “in exchange for prisoners who did commit a crime and were convicted after due process and a trial and everything of that sort.”

“He’s put a price on the head of every American abroad,” Rubio said. “Our enemies now know that if you can capture an American, you can get something meaningful in exchange for it. … When I become president of the United States, our adversaries around the world will know that America is no longer under the command of someone weak like Barack Obama and it will be like Ronald Reagan, where as soon as he took office the hostages were released from Iran.”

But Rubio’s invocation of the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis was particularly specious, Jenkins said, because the situation was nowhere as simple as Rubio described it. It wasn’t the case, he said, that the release was simply prompted by a tough-talking Reagan’s inauguration – rather, diplomats under President Jimmy Carter negotiated a resolution finalized on Carter’s last full day as president. Carter secured the 52 hostages’ release in exchange for the unfreezing of Iranian assets, an American pledge not to meddle in internal Iranian affairs and the creation of a framework for resolving post-revolution financial claims.

There is the reality of this sort of thing:

“There were concessions in return for getting them back,” Jenkins said.

And while Reagan’s pledge not to “pay ransom” to the Iranians, coupled with Carter’s determination to secure a deal while president, clearly forced the crisis’s resolution, Reagan’s tough talk didn’t continue to guide his administration’s actions. Senior Reagan administration officials later went on to engage in secret talks with Iran to gain the release of hostages held by Iranian client groups in Lebanon. The deal negotiated by the Reagan officials included the sale of arms to Iran, the proceeds of which were funneled to right-wing rebels in Nicaragua, later exploding into the Iran-Contra affair.

Even before the Iran hostage crisis, Jenkins noted, presidents exchanged prisoners with America’s sworn enemies – particularly with the Soviet Union, which in many cases held prisoners for charges just as trumped-up as those against the American prisoners released this past weekend. The first East-West Cold War prisoner exchange was dramatized in last year’s Hollywood movie “Bridge of Spies,” and similar prisoner exchanges continued into the ’80s under Reagan – including the 1986 exchange of Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky for the CIA mole Karl Koecher.

And that “negotiating with terrorists” model doesn’t apply here either:

Jenkins said the deal to release the five Iranian captives differs in crucial ways from a “ransom” paid for a hostage – the most important being it was negotiated not with a terrorist group holding a kidnapped American, but with a nation that took Americans into custody on its soil under its sovereign powers. That’s a distinction carrying profound meaning in the realm of foreign affairs and international law, despite the fact the U.S. continues to list Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and Iran’s behavior.

“We may dispute the circumstances, but this would fall into the category of wrongful detention,” Jenkins said – the exact sort of situation that has historically been resolved through deals to free prisoners.

On the other hand, maybe Obama did nothing:

Republican primary front-runner Donald Trump on Saturday said his rhetoric condemning the Iranian regime played an integral part in securing the release of four U.S. prisoners.

“So I’ve been hitting them hard, and I think I might have had something to do with it,” Trump said at the South Carolina Tea Party Convention in Myrtle Beach, S.C. …

“They’re in one of the worst prisons in the world, and we had to do something, so I’d always talk about it.”

He talked about it, the Iranians trembled and let our people go, Obama had nothing to do with it, but Trump would have cut a better deal:

“They’re getting seven people that they’ve wanted, much more serious, real people – real people meaning they’ve committed real problems – and they’re getting I guess 14 or 15 other people that are on the watch list – these are really bad dudes, and they’re being taken off the watch list,” he said.

“We give them $150 billion, we give them essentially 22 people – 21, 22 people – but these are people that really did have problems, and we’re getting back four people who didn’t do anything wrong,” he added.

“That’s the way we negotiate. That’s the way we negotiate. It’s so sad. It’s so sad.”

Trump said the U.S. could have gotten the prisoners released by threatening to levy more stringent sanctions on Iran.

No one can see how that would have worked, and Trump exaggerates a bit:

In exchange for the American prisoners’ freedom, the United States pardoned or commuted the sentences of an Iranian and six dual citizens of the United States and Iran in what Obama called a “one-time gesture.”

The men allegedly had been involved in exporting products and services to Iran in violation of trade sanctions against the country. They were accused of exporting goods ranging from electronic components and satellite services to marine navigation and military equipment to Iran.

Khosrow Afghahi, Tooraj Faridi, Bahram Mechanic and Nima Golestaneh were pardoned. Nader Modanlo, Arash Ghahreman and Ali Saboonchi had their sentences commuted, the U.S. Justice Department said.

These were not stone-cold-killer-terrorists. They were only moderately bad dudes, if that, and there weren’t twenty-two of them. And all this didn’t come down because Donald Trump kept saying that Iranians were the worst persons in the world – but Donald Trump is who he is and Heather Parton adds this:

Honestly, I can’t understand what kind of person likes this self-serving, puerile nonsense. How can anyone take this bullshit seriously?

But those have the famous last words of many a person in history, haven’t they?

Ali Gharib in the Guardian adds this:

Other candidates gave credit to a higher authority (though Trump might quibble with that ranking). “Praise God!” Senator Ted Cruz tweeted. Another Republican candidate, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, had the same reaction, also tweeting, “Praise God!” Rubio chimed in on Twitter, too: “Thankful that prayers have been answered” he said.

But it wasn’t god that negotiated the release for the US: it was Brett McGurk, a senior State Department official who normally works on managing the anti-Islamic State coalition. He and his counterpart, an Iranian intelligence official, according to reports, worked through a channel that had been established in late 2014 and picked up steam after the nuclear deal was struck in July 2015.

And it wasn’t the prayers that got Rezaian and company home. It was a compromise.

And that was the problem:

With so much progress having been made on the nuclear side since talks were announced publicly in the autumn of 2013, it is sometimes difficult to remember that Congress repeatedly came within a hair’s breadth of killing negotiations with new sanctions that they knew violated the deal’s tenets.

And, if critics in Congress had managed to kill the prisoner swap before it happened, that would have left us with an unsavory outcome: five Americans would have remained in Iranian detention for who-knows-how long.

That there were few other viable alternatives to the prisoner swap seems obvious from the alternatives that the right offered: basically nothing. The closest thing to a Plan B I saw was a March letter from 17 Senate Republican hawks, led by presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, urging the administration to “demand the unconditional release of these Americans.” It’s almost as if they believed that simply shouting “Let my people go!” would have done the trick.

Yeah, right, but Stephen Kinzer, whose books include All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror and Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future, says there’s been a misunderstanding here:

The demonization of Iran is arguably the most bizarre and self-defeating of all U.S. foreign policies. Americans view Iran not simply as a country with interests that sometimes conflict with ours, but as a relentless font of evil. This is true across the political spectrum, from Hillary Clinton’s assertion in 2008 that she is ready to “totally obliterate” Iran to Sen. Ted Cruz’s recent description of Iranians as “people who want to kill us.” American politicians rarely speak that way about any other country. Iran occupies a unique place in our pantheon of enemies. So what is occurring now between Iran and the United States is hard for many Americans to process.

But they might want to process this:

Iran is hardly blameless in this confrontation. Its human right record is atrocious. Anti-Israel rhetoric from its religious leaders is hateful. Its missile tests are destabilizing and provocative. In the 1980s and ’90s, groups it supported carried out attacks on American and pro-American targets.

Nonetheless, it is clear that our perception of Iran as a threat to vital American interests is increasingly disconnected from reality. Iran is the only country in the Middle East that is totally opposed to the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other terror gangs. It is a regional power at best, plagued by internal problems and reeling from the harshest economic sanctions ever imposed on any country. Its military has no ability to project long-range power. Its ballistic missile capacity is considerably weaker than that of nearby countries including India, Pakistan, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Allegations that it threatens the United States with cyberattacks may have some basis in reality, but the United States has also attacked Iran this way. In 2010, Iran was the victim of what may have been the most potent attack in the history of cyberwarfare, aimed at its nuclear program and designed in part by the United States.

Perhaps that doesn’t matter here, or there, but it could:

The intensity of anti-Iran feeling in the United States is based only in small part on Iran’s actual behavior. It is the logical result of conditioning: Thirty-five years of relentless anti-Iran rhetoric from across our political spectrum, including both political parties and most of the news media, and the stigmatizing of anyone who dissents from the paradigm of hostility. Beyond that is our lack of experience in dealing with countries that have different interests from ours. We feel good having an enemy, and Iran fits our bill.

Extremist politicians in Iran stoke the conflict. This is an election year in Iran as well as in the United States, and these militants, like their counterparts in the United States, denounce any negotiation as a sellout. “If we lose our strength and walk under the U.S. flag 50 times,” one key militia commander said this month, “other countries would feel that Iran is collapsing and they can do whatever they want.”

Moderates and realists in Iran are working to counter this over-the-top rhetoric. Americans who favor a stable Middle East should be doing the same.

Americans who now favor something else are Republicans who want to be president. Moderates and realists in Iran, and Obama and his team, have something else in mind, a somewhat more stable Middle East, with open diplomatic channels to keep thing from getting out of hand again. But that’s boring, isn’t it? And that doesn’t win elections. On the other hand, this is a done deal. We’re all safer now, for now.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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