The Lessons Learned (And Not) From Vietnam and Iraq Shape the Fight Over the Iran Deal

tags: Iran, Obama, nuclear deal

Ian Reifowitz is the author of "Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity" (Potomac Books, 2012).

According to a report from the Associated Press, congressional Republicans are divided when it comes to the Iran deal. Some of them rejected it right away, while others wanted to read it first before slamming it. Falling into the first category is Scott Walker. Even before the deal was announced, he declared that on Day 1 of his presidency he would "terminate the bad deal with Iran." Maybe Walker was hoping that that homage might win him brownie points from a certain Republican ex-Governator.

Politics aside, the arguments for and against the deal reflect a fundamentally different approach to international affairs and U.S. national security, as well as a fundamentally different reading of recent American history when it comes to war. What's really unconscionable is that the opponents of this agreement-one that vindicates the Nobel Committee's decision to award Barack Obama its Peace Prize a few years back-appear to have mislearned completely the lessons taught by the most grave foreign policy mistake in our country's history: the invasion of Iraq.

Dick Cheney, the architect of that mistake and the man behind the lies that helped precipitate it, condemned the president's Iran agreement, predicting that it "will, in fact, I think put us to closer to use-actual use of nuclear weapons than we've been at any time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II." This from the man whose past predictions include such whoppers as: 1) the war in Iraq will be over "relatively quickly, weeks rather than months," and 2) American forces, upon invading Iraq, "will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." In fact, Dick Cheney gave us ISIS. 

As misguided and destructive as the invasion of Iraq turned out to be, Iran actually offered the Bush-Cheney administration an opportunity to make at least some lemonade out of that batch of lemons. It wouldn't have justified a war of choice, but would have been a significant achievement nonetheless, and one that would have obviated the need for the deal finalized this past week that Cheney thinks is so dangerous. 

In 2003, Bush and Cheney simply ignored a potentially game-changing Iranian proposal that, as I explained elsewhere, "would have allowed international inspectors to oversee its nuclear program, halted Iran's backing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, committed Iran to reining in and helping to disarm Hezbollah, and even moved Iran toward recognition of Israel... In return, Iran was to receive the technology necessary to create a functioning, peaceful nuclear energy program, an end to all sanctions, and a recognition of its 'legitimate security interests.'" And as Dick and George should well remember, Iran made this offer when they weren't spinning any centrifuges, or enriching any uranium, according to a senior director on Bush's National Security Council staff who reviewed the proposal. But yeah, Dick Cheney is the guy we want to listen to. 

What we must learn from his and Dubya's blunders is that the U.S. should never go to war unless we have absolutely no other choice, when any other course would put our country in real danger. What alternative do the opponents of the Iran deal propose? They say they want to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, a goal shared by President Obama-despite the preposterous and shameful claim to the opposite made by Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, a man desperate to hold off a right-wing primary challenge from ex.-Rep. Joe Walsh. What the opponents don't offer is a realistic way to get a better deal than Obama and John Kerry got in Vienna. As Brendan Gilfillan, director of communications and public affairs for the Truman National Security Project, put it:

How, exactly, do we get the unicorn deal that dismantles every piece of nuclear infrastructure in Iran and forces their scientists to forget everything they know about the periodic table of elements? Opponents of negotiation often say additional sanctions will force a better deal with the Iranians. But this is a false choice. The current sanctions regime was effective in forcing the Iranians to the table because it involved many of the world's major powers. Adding sanctions when a deal was in reach would have upended the sanctions regime, which no amount of American sanctions alone could replace.

The uncomfortable (and unpopular) subtext of many opponents' public statements is clear: Despite the immense amount of blood and treasure spent in Iraq, some have still not learned the lesson that wars in the Middle East fought in the name of nuclear non-proliferation are best avoided if there is a better option.

In addition to the lessons learned (and not) from the invasion of Iraq, our country must also heed the lessons of our war in Vietnam. While Dick Cheney sought five student deferments because, as he explained, he had "other priorities in the 60's than military service," and George W. Bush got himself assigned to a "champagne unit" of the Texas Air National Guard, John Kerry enlisted, and served with honor. When he came home, he protested against the war, and in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, famously asked: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

These were the lessons that were on Secretary of State John Kerry's mind in Vienna. And when the deal was finally done, Kerry and the foreign ministers of China, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, and Iran each reflected on what the agreement they had negotiated together "meant to them." Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the chief negotiator for the U.S. in Vienna, related what happened:

Kerry was the last to speak, Sherman said, and at the end of his remarks, he said: "When I was 22, I went to war" - before choking up.

"He couldn't get the words out," she recalled. "And everybody was completely spellbound."

Kerry composed himself and continued, "I went to war and it became clear to me that I never wanted to go to war again."

"That's what this was all about. Trying to settle these matters through diplomacy and peaceful means."

"And it was such a moving moment," Sherman told her audience, "that everybody in that small room applauded - including the Iranian delegation. Everyone had tears in their eyes."

Read entire article at Huffington Post