Iran Deal: Should We Give Obama the Benefit of the Doubt?

Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged.

—-Winston Churchill eulogizing Neville Chamberlain, 1940

Later this month historian Niall Ferguson will roll out volume one of his authorized Henry Kissinger biography. Earlier this summer Ferguson took to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal to reflect on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) midwifed for Barack Obama by John Kerry at the historic Palais Coburg in Vienna. Comparisons to the 1930s, he wrote, are “overused.”

Who can deny that analogies to a deal sealed in 1938 have been a glut on the market for heaven knows how long? For example, two years ago Kerry himself said it was time to get involved violently if necessary to stop Bashar Assad from massacring his people and called it “our Munich moment.” Few took the secretary of state seriously. The analogy was tired and Assad wasn’t Hitler.

And yet, and yet. “History,” quipped Mark Twain, “never repeats itself but often it rhymes.”

Having questioned the analogy, Ferguson likened what Chamberlain hoped and did to what Obama is doing and hoping. It’s not so much that the JCPOA is riddled with holes as that Chamberlain depended on Hitler mending his ways and Obama is depending on the Islamic Republic to mend its, and sooner rather than later, to vanish.

Ferguson predicted that just as Churchill saw and warned that what Chamberlain had done with Hitler made war under less favorable conditions inevitable, what Obama is doing will be remembered for making certain the Islamic Republic gets the Bomb.

The rabbis are of the opinion that the age of prophesy ended when Titus demolished Herod’s temple. Since then nobody should be trusted to combine a vision of the near, medium or distant future with a summons to repent. The unique exception may have been that old alcoholic imperialist, Churchill, in the fall of 1938. Minus the Scotch, the moralizing and the call to rediscover virtue, will Harvard professor Ferguson be another?

Whatever happens, future historians are sure to quarrel over when the JCPOA die was cast. They'll agree it was long before Congress either voted on it or was prevented from voting on it by a filibuster, but how long before?

Some will go back to early 2009, when right after his inauguration Obama sent the grand ayatollah a message. Others will zoom in on later that year when, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been reelected president of the Islamic Republic, after the young Iranians unhappy about the fake election had been shot down in the streets of Tehran and Obama had chided that “violence directed at peaceful protesters [is] not how governments should interact with their people,” the prime minister of Israel didn’t override his generals and spymasters and have Nantanz, Fordow, Parchin and Arak bombed.

What if Netanyahu had done it? The counterfactual game is an alluring one. Back in the 20th century Ferguson edited a book of what he dubbed essays in “virtual” history and contributed a chapter on what might have been if England had stayed out of the Great War. Others considered the ramifications of the Wehrmacht defeating the Red Army and of JFK not being assassinated. No end to the hypotheticals we can frame. What if the Republicans had insisted the JCPOA be presented to the Senate as a treaty needing two-thirds consent? Or if Mohammad Javad Zarif had come downstairs at the Palais Coburg to find Kerry replaced by Kissinger?