National Review editor Rich Lowry perpetrates a regular column in Politico—a reliable repository of off-the-rack conservative arguments delivered with little attention to nuance and even less to spelling. On Wednesday, Lowry offered a relatively tame re-tread of Republican objections to the nuclear deal with Iran—once more we are invited to imagine that a Scott Walker would somehow be more deft at negotiating with the Persians, or that stricter sanctions would have turned the Iranian foreign minister into an American puppet. These are jolly ideas that have little relation to what’s actually happening among the three prime branches of the Iranian government, or to what’s happening on the streets, where, in a country of 80 million, nearly 50 million citizens are younger than 35 and largely pro-Western.
Lowry has little interest in actual Iranians or their reformist groundswells—Republicans, once eager to herald the Iranian democratic impulse (“freedom breaking out,” and so on), stopped beating that drum around the time Paul Wolfowitz left the Bush cabinet, when it became clear that voters needed a break from the rough middle-patch in Iraq (pre-surge). Lowry’s chief concerns are President Obama’s muscular indifference to domestic critiques of the deal and his red-line rhetoric (ratify the Iran deal, or prepare for war) toward Congress.
Lowry’s central complaint is that Obama has engaged in brinksmanship by saying “treaty, or war.” This is brinksmanship, of a sort, but we should also read it as a forcible response to a decade of war-mongering.
In other words, Obama is adopting precisely the kind of posturing that Benjamin Netanyahu uses in his communications with the Knesset, and for which Netanyahu is considered a “courageous” darling among America’s right wing.
Yes, we find the usual variety of frivolous claims in Lowry’s latest: Obama was wrong to say that Iranian hard-liners “are making common cause with the Republican caucus” (Lowry has forgotten the early epistolary work of Senator Tom Cotton); Obama was wrong to lobby for peace first among the international community, before selling the deal at home (Lowry had no problem when Bush used these same tactics to lobby for war); by contrast, Ronald Reagan exerted “military and moral pressure against the Soviet Union until he sensed a fundamental shift in the regime” (in fact, Reagan drove the United States into horrible debt so he could fund several generations’ worth of new nuclear bombs); and, even after this fundamental shift, Reagan “was still prepared to walk away from the table” (perhaps—but so was Kerry in Switzerland). Still, Lowry’s central complaint is that Obama has engaged in brinksmanship by saying “treaty, or war.” This is brinksmanship, of a sort, but we should also read it as a forcible response to a decade of war-mongering. Obama’s rhetoric rebuts the hawks who would have us descend on Tehran with the full weight of the American military: You guys have wanted to bomb Iran for years. Here is your chance.
Congressional Republicans may well resent these options, but they should probably recognize it’s their bluff that Obama’s about to call.
Lowry’s central complaint is that Obama is offering forceful, unapologetic leadership. Just like reformist politicians in Israel or Iran, Obama has learned that the toughest zealots to negotiate with are not foreign but domestic.