Belmont Club

What We Learned Today

The negotiations between Greece and the EU established that Germany was prepared to defend the European project at all costs.  Everything else — financial sanity, the welfare of the Greek people, even political freedom — could be sacrificed on the altar of that one, non-negotiable objective.   In the same manner, the announcement of an agreement between Iran and President Obama to lift sanctions in exchange for a promise by Tehran not to build a nuclear weapon does the same thing.  It shows unequivocally that Obama values a rapprochement with Iran above most anything else. Why the agreement should be so desirable to him is unclear.

Iran and six major world powers reached a nuclear deal on Tuesday, capping more than a decade of on-off negotiations with an agreement that could potentially transform the Middle East, and which Israel called an “historic surrender”.

Under the deal, sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union and United Nations would be lifted in return for Iran agreeing long-term curbs on a nuclear program that the West has suspected was aimed at creating a nuclear bomb.

In a way, the agreement comes as a relief. The suspense is finally over. Iran will get the bomb, the only question is when. The Jerusalem Post writes that “the accord on the verge of being agreed upon in Vienna, the one Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has railed against endlessly, buys the Iranians more time. Ten years of it. During this period the Iranians will be hard pressed to assemble a nuclear bomb. But then the sun will set on the agreement and all bets will be off. Then the Iranians, according to Israel’s reading of the deal, will not have to sneak around to assemble a bomb, they will be able to do so in broad daylight.”

But the uncertainty over the time frame is partially compensated by the certainty over the result. There was never any real chance that Obama would stop Iran. He was interested in attaining something which, for want of a better term, can be called his “legacy.” That to him meant this agreement and all it implies. Like the Germans who wanted an EU above all else, it is apparent Obama wanted that legacy so much that he would throw everything aside to get it.

Events force politicians to show their hand, revealing which policies they pay mere lip service to and those they mean in earnest. Writers at the Huffington Post attempt to explain to themselves “why Obama is leaving Greece to fend for itself against Germany.” In another article readers are asked “why should Washington confront Russia if Europeans won’t protect Ukraine?” But wrapped inside the apparent mysteries are clear indications. In both cases one can surmise that neither Greece nor Ukraine is very valuable to the EU at all, not when set beside other considerations.

With this lamplight the questions “why is Obama leaving Israel to fend for itself against Iran?”, “why is Obama leaving the Middle East to collapse into an ISIS dominated chaos?”, and “why is Obama leaving Southeast Asia to fend for itself against China?” do not reveal much about the president’s intent, but very definitely indicate what he is prepared to risk.  There are some things which are expendable. If you’re expendable, it’s important to know.

The president is apparently willing to pay a helluva price for something.  Never mind for the moment what that is. Rather than cudgel one’s brains to identify where this piece falls in the puzzle, it is far more important to understand that in the president’s world, if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu. Despite the upbeat announcements that the Iran nuclear deal means “war is off the table,” it actually means the opposite.

It should broadcast to the Sunni states and Israel in no uncertain terms that they are on the menu. By contrast, Hezbollah and Assad will be buoyed up, as they are soon to have the backing of a regional nuclear power. Russia and China are probably even now recalculating their positions.

Obama has just authorized a weapons purchase by the equivalent of a five-time deportee with a rap sheet.  There’s a waiting period, that is all.  And Iran’s neighbors may soon be in the market for their own hardware. In these circumstances regional war is as likely, perhaps even more likely, as a regional peace, which is a sad outcome for a so-called “deal.”  What the “deal” actually does to change the incentives of conflict in Iraq, Syria, North Africa and the borders of Turkey is hard to explain.  If anything it will spur the combatants on.

Almost no one in the foreign policy establishment can articulate a reason for this deal other than to assert that a “bad agreement is worse than no agreement,” without shedding the slightest light on what this doohickey actually does. The president’s ultimate goal, his secret strategic objective, remains as obscure and impenetrable as ever. The president’s admirers, stumped to provide an explanation, are likely to seek refuge in political faith, in the belief that Obama is so much smarter than the rest of us and especially them — that we, unlike him, cannot see so many moves ahead.

“It’s going to be wonderful!”  they assert. Somehow.

The alternative of course is to entertain the possibility that Obama’s no smarter — and probably less smart — than Merkel, Tsipras, Hollande and Juncker, who have proved embarrassingly foolish, and that’s he just making a hash of everything as usual, in the same way OMB made a shambles of personnel records, and the VA of veterans’ care.  Common sense suggests that Obama is as likely to succeed in this as he has succeeded in the past. To imagine that he will be abnormally excellent in this single nuclear deal, performing 3 or 4 standard deviations over his batting average,  is really to wager on the improbable.

But this we know. Iran will have the bomb. Nonproliferation is slowly dying if it is not dead. But at least Obama’s legacy — whatever he thinks it is — lives.

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