clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Iran nuclear deal: Conservatives have opposed every diplomatic breakthrough for decades

Within hours of the announcement of a final deal between Iran, the US, EU, China, and Russia on nuclear disarmament for sanctions relief, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol was already appalled. "We have a deal," he wrote. "It's a deal worse than even we imagined possible. It's a deal that gives the Iranian regime $140b in return for ... effectively nothing: no dismantlement of Iran's nuclear program, no anytime/anywhere inspections, no curbs on Iran's ballistic missile program, no maintenance of the arms embargo, no halt to Iran's sponsorship of terror."

How, you might wonder, could Barack Obama be so naive? And what a strange coincidence that his naiveté was shared by David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and François Hollande such that a completely preposterous deal could be agreed upon despite possessing holes that are both massive and invisible to everyone other than American conservative activists. Well, if you want to understand the deep intellectual and psychological roots of conservative opposition to Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, it's useful to take a step back from the details and look at a newspaper ad campaign conservatives ran in 1988 (via Jon Chait):

Yes, that is a conservative ad comparing Ronald Reagan to Neville Chamberlain.

You make peace with your enemies

"If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends," said Moshe Dayan, the former Israeli foreign minister and defense minister. "You talk to your enemies."

Conservatives don't believe in talking to your enemies.

  • Back in June 1950, Sen. Robert Taft explained that agreements FDR and Harry Truman reached with the Soviet Union were "really part of the sympathetic acceptance of communism as a peace-loving philosophy which has resulted in making Russia a threat to the existence of the world."
  • As Peter Scoblic recounts in his excellent history of arms control, US versus Them, in the 1960s conservatives opposed the Non-Proliferation Treaty because they "charged that the treaty violated US sovereignty while Goldwater worried that it would force the United States to defend those without nuclear weapons." National Review called the NPT "immoral, foolish, and probably most impractical."
  • A July 29, 1971, Milwaukee Journal article recounts that "a dozen conservative leaders led by William F. Buckley Thursday denounces President Nixon" over a range of issues, but "especially his recent announcement that he would go to Communist China."
  • Conservatives looked to Ronald Reagan as an alternative to Richard Nixon, but once he was in office he made some deals with the Soviet Union and was denounced for his troubles.
  • In a very different geopolitical context, back in 1999 Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol denounced Bill Clinton's efforts to negotiate an end to the war in Kosovo, writing that "the only thing to discuss with Milosevic is his unconditional surrender."
  • Applying the same logic, conservatives felt that George H. W. Bush had made a mistake by agreeing to a negotiated settlement to the Persian Gulf War and were cheered when his son chose unconditional surrender as the war aim for a second round.
  • It was swiftly forgotten due to the events of 9/11, but in April 2001 the Bush administration resolved a crisis with China by apologizing for a US spy plane that had crashed on Hainan Island after flying in Chinese airspace. Kagan and Kristol pronounced it "a national humiliation."

Needless to say, once Barack Obama took office conservatives found plenty of opportunities to be outraged by routine diplomacy. Sen. John Ensign deemed it "irresponsible" for Obama to so much as shake hands with Hugo Chavez. Conservatives denounced his New START treaty with Russia and his diplomatic opening to Russia.

Occasional agreements or perpetual war?

While the specifics certainly vary from case to case, the basic themes are always the same. Any diplomatic agreement attracts scorn for displaying a mixture of weakness (because to reach a deal indicates a preference for not fighting a war, and if you're not willing to fight a war, there's no way you're going to be able to negotiate or enforce a strong deal) and naiveté (because to reach a deal involves leaving in power untrustworthy actors who might cheat) that should be rejected in favor of a more muscular approach.

These denunciations have been brought forth against Republican presidents as well as Democrats for the simple reason that officeholders burdened with the responsibility of making actual decisions generally do need to recognize that wars are costly and unpredictable and that it is worth trying to avoid them. Only during George W. Bush's first term in office did we see a genuinely robust effort to avoid dealmaking, and the results were disastrous. But to the architects of that policy, the only history lesson worth learning is that appeasement of Adolf Hitler was a mistake and therefore all diplomatic agreements are a mistake.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.