During the most recent GOP debate, there appeared to be a contest between candidates over who could sound the most outraged by the Obama administration on foreign policy. These men are running against Hillary Clinton (and Barack Obama, at least in rhetoric) and to do so – and to pander to the most basic version of a Republican – those two must be called doves, weaklings, and politicians who apologize for America nonstop.
It’s painful to praise Obama’s foreign policy in any way. We will live to regret the precedent his administration set for drone presence in various countries with which the U.S. isn’t even at war. And an official legal defense for assassination of American citizens is something even George W. Bush didn’t manage to get to during his terrible eight years. Yet, for all of the bloodstained embarrassment that is our Nobel Prize-winning President Obama, he could have been much much more sanguine.
Obama still heads the empire known as the United States, but he does appear to have a certain level of fondness for diplomacy. Much like the generally-loathsome Richard Nixon, Obama may eventually get some historical credit for talking instead of fighting. And he may even deserve it.
In 1972 when Nixon decided to recognize Communist China, the phrase – and it has lingered – was “only Nixon could go to China.” That is, Nixon was a Republican who had proven his warmongering bona fides already. He did not look weak when he decided to start talking to one of the 20th century’s great villains, Mao Zedong.
The above link is to a National Review piece which disputes the daring of Nixon in this case, noting that support for the action was high, and the U.S. had lost its taste for leaving China on its own a few years previously. So even a seemingly-soft Democrat could have made the leap. The point, however, is that Mao’s heinous crimes were not wiped away by the fact of the United States recognizing Red China. Nixon himself had an enlightening quote that said this had to be done not because the U.S. loved China, but because China was there.
Forty years later, China is richer and less brutal than it was, with millions and millions lifted out of poverty. And whether Nixon in China has taken on certain mythic conceits or not, it still was a moment of speech instead of warfare. That’s always nice. It also doesn’t seem to be popular among today’s Republicans.
Even more undeniable than the benefits of countries communicating is the fact that sanctions and embargoes do so little. Cuba has been plugging along oppressed and isolated from the U.S. for 60 years, and men named Castro have ruled it for all that time. Cuba’s dictators were not removed or particularly harmed, but the people of Cuba certainly were when they were prevented from buying medicine.
Iran is similar, and that is where the true vitriol still seems to lie. The Castros are old and tired, but Iran is still infuriating conservatives by refusing to be a U.S. puppet. Only that, it seems, would satisfy them.
None of this – or diplomacy itself – is to suggest that the hardliners in Iran, the Castros of Cuba, or certainly Chairman Mao were not cruel dictators. That’s the thing; this idea that two heads of state speaking, or even one country recognizing the other somehow means that every action of each country is being condoned by the other is absurd. Countries exist, and do not need to be overjoyed by each other’s choice to realize that talking beats bombs.
Over at the Atlantic, Uri Friedman has an absorbing piece about the recent strides in U.S.-Iran relations, and the optimistic universe in which Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and others dwell as contrasted with the Republicans who were hysterical about the Iran deal, the brief detainment of the 10 U.S. sailors, and the fact of the U.S. talking to that nation at all.
Now hawks may plead that they are not opposed to diplomacy, but only want “peace through strength.” But this is an ephemeral idea that exists merely to prop up the status quo of which country counts as an enemy, and which nation is a treasured friend.
Why is Saudi Arabia – a monarchy in which women cannot drive and crimes are sometimes punished with decapitation – a vital ally while Iran is an enemy? What is this but arbitrary preference? Why can’t we accept that even moderates in other nations do not wish to be puppets of the U.S., but need a reason to trust it, just as we need one to trust them?
Countless words have been expended writing about the deep cynicism of U.S. foreign policy. From Red Scares, to Stalin as ally, and back to the USSR as the great evil, and from the noble Mujahideen must be funded, to enemy number one is Al-Qaeda, to actual consideration of allying with Al-Qaeda offshoots against ISIS, the U.S.’s only guiding principle is whatever feels good now. Yet for some reason, the very thought of talking on the phone with Iran wounded every GOP candidate save Rand Paul.
This is pandering on their part, but they’re doing it for a reason. And they have not really explained what they want from other nations except for them to be entirely cowed to this one. Perhaps that would make a peaceful, tidy world, but it is utopian dreaming. Iran is a nation of 70 million, and it has decades of reasons to distrust the U.S.. The fact that Iran and the U.S. are talking and it now takes Iran 15 hour to release Americans instead of 444 days is nothing but progress. Obama’s Peace Prize is still a twisted joke, but the current howling mob of Republicans is a reminder that the humor can always turn more black.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.