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It’s not Obama who’s too afraid of Iran. It's Iran hawks.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Conservative hawks' criticism of the Iran nuclear deal has coalesced around one main talking point: that Obama has "capitulated" to the mullahs in Tehran, and that by doing so he has left America less safe.

The president, these critics argue, was not brave or strong-willed enough to get a better deal. And he certainly lacks the iron resolve needed to see this one through.

Getting Iran right, in that view, is all about seeing the dangers posed by this hostile, evil regime and confronting them with Churchillian resolve. In other words, what it calls for is bravery. The brave thing would be hawkishness: to refuse to cooperate and to threaten or use military force to win Iran's total submission. And Obama, because he didn't do that, doesn't have the bravery needed to take on this challenge.

But the hawks have that theory completely backward. The confrontational hostility they're calling for isn't animated by bravery. Rather, it is all about fear.

Hawkishness is usually perceived as being about aggression. And it’s true that its core belief is that America needs to be willing to use force, and use it consistently, to protect its interests overseas, which is certainly an aggressive way of interacting with the world.

But that approach to foreign affairs is really about fear: the fear that the only thing keeping America’s enemies in check is their fear of our military might, and that any sign that we’re not constantly ready to use force will make our enemies bolder and leave America more vulnerable.

That’s why you tend to hear a lot of complaints about "appeasement" and glowering references to Neville Chamberlain at times like this — it arises out of a real fear that negotiation seems like weakness, and weakness eventually leads to catastrophe.

You could see this, for example, in the froth of Iran deal criticism from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose arguments against the Iran deal escalated until, a few days before, he warned that Iran's goal is "to take over the world." This is an idea that only makes sense if you are gripped not by bravery, but by fear.

Critics of that hawkish worldview tend to focus on what it leads the United States to do — namely, get involved in protracted, damaging wars that turn out to have catastrophic long-term consequences. But it's also costly because of what it prevents: the negotiations and agreements that never happen because hawkish politicians are too afraid of looking weak to ever give them a serious try.

Take, for instance, the Iran nuclear deal. Obama didn't "capitulate" in the negotiations, but he and the other countries involved did negotiate: The deal exchanges something Iran wants (sanctions relief) for something the US and its allies want (strict limits on Iran's nuclear program as well as an invasive inspections regime). Negotiation requires compromise, and compromise requires confidence — confidence that you are strong enough to give something up without losing everything, and confidence that you are smart enough to get something better in return.

A hawk would never have made that deal. Ostensibly, according to hawks, that is because they understand the threats that can only be met with overwhelming might. But really it is because of fear: fear of a country that is much weaker than the US, fear of negotiating, and fear that America's strength is so frail that even a show of compromise will shatter it. Fortunately for us, and indeed for an Iran that is getting sanction relief rather than war, the US is much stronger than they think.