As more and more information about the nuclear talks with Iran is revealed in the press, including yesterday’s gem in which the nation learned that the White House might consider allowing Iran to proceed with enrichment at hardened, underground facilities designed to withstand airstrikes, the public grows reasonably skeptical of the true design of a nuclear accord. If the administration’s aim is not merely to freeze but roll back the Iranian nuclear weapons program, actors in the region nervous about Iran’s ambitions believe the White House will fail to achieve this objective. Moreover, in the effort to provide Iran with deference to its interests during negotiations, the Islamic Republic’s proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and now Yemen have seen their reach and capabilities augmented. In all of those nations, skirmishes or outright battles between Sunni forces and Shiite militias loyal to Tehran are raging with various degrees of intensity.
The administration has allowed all of this chaos to proliferate, and for what? A deal that prevents Iran from nuclearizing is in American national interests, and polls have shown that the public is keenly desirous of a peaceful halt to the Iranian nuclear program. Bipartisan majorities in surveys routinely say that the Iranian nuclear program is a threat to national security and that military force should be used as a last resort to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a bomb. But at what cost is the United States pursuing that goal? Right now, as the Arab World’s Sunni nations amass military coalitions to roll back Iranian influence in regions with Shiite insurgencies, it appears as though the cost might be escalating armed conflicts, more failed states in a part of the world that breeds fundamentalist terrorism, and the prospect of likely American involvement in those conflicts down the road.
But that’s a pessimist’s view, says an official with the State Department. “The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen,” an unnamed diplomatic official told Politico, “or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region.”
That sounds like a threat: “Smile or the region gets it.” But it also sounds disturbingly familiar, as though it has been said before. And, maybe, it has been said before, albeit in terms less callous. Replace “Yemen” with the economy and “nuclear accord on Iran” with the Affordable Care Act, and its 2010 all over again.
The similarities between the two issues are interesting. While the administration sees the neutralization of Iranian nuclear ambitions and the proliferation of terrorist threats throughout the region as matters that cannot be decoupled, many American do not. Similarly, even on the eve of the Affordable Care Act’s passage, most Americans did not see the link between the economy’s persistent woes and the reformation of the nation’s health care system. A Gallup survey from February, 2010, found that six in ten Americans thought Obama had overlooked addressing America’s economic challenges in favor of health care reform. Pew Research Center poll from January of that year discovered the issue of health care to be a top priority for only 57 percent of the public, ranking below the economy, jobs, terrorism, social security, education, Medicare, and deficit reduction.
While polls today find that the Iranian nuclear threat is a matter that needs to be addressed, the public is vastly more concerned with tackling the threat posed by international terrorism. While the public wants Obama to walk and chew gum at the same time, the White House is singularly focused on a deal with Iran.
Indeed, some in the administration admitted as much as long ago as October. “Bottom line is, this is the best opportunity we’ve had to resolve the Iranian issue diplomatically, certainly since President Obama came to office, and probably since the beginning of the Iraq War,” said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes at a meeting with the White House’s progressive allies. “So no small opportunity, it’s a big deal.”
“This is probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy,” he said. “This is healthcare for us, just to put it in context.”
That’s an inauspicious comparison, but this administration continues to believe that history will vindicate the health care reform law and the corrupt and convoluted process that gave birth to it. Similarly, the administration sees a suboptimal deal as better than no deal, and they believe that future Congresses or presidents that attempt to reverse the progress they have made will find it structurally impossible. The White House theorizes that, no matter how unpopular this deal might be, it isn’t going anywhere.
That’s some legacy, but this is how the administration views its role in history. Obama isn’t the great communicator or a proficient compromiser. He is the used car salesman-in-chief; forever pushing a bad deal on those he is supposed to be serving, and celebrating the arrangement’s irrevocability once the contract has been signed. A nuclear deal that remains as deeply mistrusted as Obamacare has been these last five years is, however, a dangerous prospect. The figurative fight over the Affordable Care Act has been waged in the streets, in the courts, and in the Congress. The literal clashes over a bad deal with Iran will be conducted in the deserts of the Middle East.