Nikki Haley and the Iran Deal: Willful Misunderstanding of the Past and Present

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Lots of country’s think they have zones of influence.

It was washed away by storms last week, but Nikki Haley gave a speech to the AEI about the Iran deal, and the need to revoke or renegotiate it. It was a masterpiece of alternate realities, falsehoods, and outright lies. It was, in short, everything the right has been saying about the Iran deal for years.

That is was Nikki Haley is significant. She hasn’t come up much on this blog, mostly because, unlike nearly everyone else in Trump’s orbit, she isn’t trying to actively destroy her department (Pruitt, Sessions, Devos) or use it to further enrich their own class (Mnuchin, Cohn, the First Family). She seems to take her job seriously.

But at the end of the day, she’s still a Republican in 2017, and beholden to the idea–really, the totemic belief–that everything Barack Obama did was wrong, and evil. They’ve based an entire philosophy, nearly an eschatology, around that, and so it must be pursued. In very few places was that more clear than the Iran deal.

By literally every measure, the Iran deal was a sweeping success. As Stephen Walt points out in his dissection of Haley’s speech, in the deal “Iran gave up enriched uranium, destroyed 13,000 centrifuges, dismantled the Arak reactor, let the U.N. install monitoring devices, implemented the NPT Additional Protocol, and a host of other measures — all before the United States or anyone else began lifting sanctions.”

Iran went from zero centrifuges to 12000 between 2002 and 2012, when we were acting unilaterally. Then in a triumph of diplomacy for Obama, Kerry, and co, we roped in not just European allies but Russia and China to increase sanctions on Iran, which hurt them enough to get to the negotiating table. It not only got them there, but they gave up a lot.

The problem, from the right, is that Iran didn’t give up everything. They still have an army. They are still able to project influence across the region and interfere with US goals and interest, whatever they are now. They got some stuff out of the negotiations, which, as advanced, high-level students of diplomatic history will tell you, is the whole point of negotiations.

Look at how Haley spins this.

Iran was feeling the pinch of international sanctions in a big, big way. In the two years before the deal was signed, Iran’s GDP actually shrunk by more than four percent. In the two years since the deal, and the lifting of sanctions, Iran’s GDP has grown by nearly five percent. That’s a great deal for them. What we get from the deal is much less clear.

Sounds compelling! The only issue is that the GDP-pinching sanctions were levied explicitly as a way to get Iran to the negotiating table so it would stall and open up its nuclear program. Russia and China weren’t going to impose sanctions forever, and neither was Europe.

We didn’t give Iran an out from a crippled economy; we crippled it so that they would give up their nuclear program to heal. Haley’s argument is entirely mendacious, misleading nonsense that demonstrates embittered opposition to reality.

Musical interlude! 

Walt, in his vivisection (which you should read: he offers a point-by-point rebuttal, even as he acknowledges that it is way easier to them to lie than for us to point out the truth), gets to the heart of the issues.

When facts and logic fail them, opponents of the JCPOA resurrect the myth of a “better deal.” Having failed to stop Obama’s original negotiation, they now claim decertifying the deal is the first step to persuading Iran and the other members of JCPOA to agree to major revisions or new restrictions. As I’ve written before, this is a vain, even laughable, hope. Contrary to unreliable sources like Bloomberg reporter Eli Lake, the other signatories remain strongly committed to the agreement and want it to remain intact, even if they would also like Iran to modify some of its other behavior in other ways. More importantly, this view incorrectly assumes the United States has unlimited leverage over Iran, and that getting tough now will magically produce a better deal.

This is it exactly. For one thing, it is crazy to think that after years of holding together a multinational sanctions regime to get a deal that gave the world what they most wanted, i.e. an Iran that can’t restart its nuclear program for 15 years, the rest of the world will be thrilled that we ripped up the deal. It’s crazy to think they’d want to start over, and wildly delusional to think they’d trust the United States at all. They wouldn’t if a normal GOPer like Rubio or Cruz tore it up; they certainly won’t trust Trump.

And more than that, do you really think Iran would actually respond to that? That they’d say “OK, now that you’ve made it clear we get nothing at all for giving up our weapons program, we’ll be sure to come to the table. What’s that? You actually want us to give up more? To stop trying to influence our region? To stop acting like the historic power we are, and let America do whatever it wants in the Middle East? Great! Where do wanna do this? We’ll bring orange slices!”

It’s madness and fallacy to think that the Iranian regime, or really, any post-Shah Iranian government, would enter into any agreement that lessens their regional power and increases that of the West. To believe that is to have zero historical understanding, of the near or the distant past.

The Iranian revolution wasn’t about Islam, or not entirely. There was a mix of anti-imperialist leftists, communists, other various secularists, religious types who didn’t want clerical rule (which remember, is what Khomeini first promised) and non-ideological nationalists who were just tired of western interference.

Western Europe and Russia had eclipsed Persian power in the region in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until oil that the West really started controlling what was happening in Iran. Lopsided deals with venal flunkies gave England and then America a dominant role in the expropriation of Iranian resources. Shahs got rich, the west got rich, and most Iranians stayed poor. The same thing happened in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Western colonialism in the Middle East was a 20th-century phenomenon, which in our lifetime seems like all of eternity, but was really a blip. It was a terrible one, from the perspective of the inhabitants, of course. It was dirty and condescending and venal and greedy and grubbing. It was literally crude. Khomeini wasn’t just deposing a shah for the sake of Islam: he was kicking out the west for the sake of Iran.

That’s the heart of this. Iran, after a low and brutal, but historically brief, interregnum, is trying to reassert itself in a changing and fluid Middle East, still reeling from the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the perversions of 20th-century colonialism and nationalism.

To think that it won’t continue this process is madness. To think that we still have unlimited influence is absurd. The US hasn’t had any real influence in Iran since 1979, and even before that it was limited, as the Shah clumsily played the US and the USSR against each other. Even where we had influence in the region, it clashed with the waves of current politics and with history, and the way those two smashed and foamed into each other.

It isn’t a unique American delusion to think that we can control everything everywhere. Iran believes that too! They are trying to influence Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and more. And that’s the point. Iran sees itself as a major player in an important part of the world, a hinge part of the world. It is right to see itself that way. Historically that has been the case, and now that it once again has control of its resources, it wants to reassert itself.

Our goal shouldn’t be unlimited influence. The history of Asia has been major and minot powers balancing themselves with others, dominating when they can and cooperating when they can’t. Our influence in the region is extremely limited. That Barack Obama was able to get Iran to give up its single-biggest asset was a miraculous display of geopolitical reality.

The attempt to destroy that comes from Obama blindness. It comes from ignorance of the 20th century and a misperception of how powerful we actually were. It comes from a complete denial of the way history actually works, and Iranian self-perception. Combined, it is a potential disaster. But then, what else is new?

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Shooting Irrelevance “Classics”: THE TRUMP NUCLEAR TERROR SHOWS THE GODLIKE POWER OF THE PRESIDENCY

 Obvious accompaniment to the post

(We’re probably not going to have a nuclear war with North Korea. Probably. But it is a good reminder that the Presidency in invested with literally godlike powers, essentially unchecked control over life and death on the planet. I’m linking back to an article I wrote last June about how this is power nobody should have, especially not Donald Trump. Denuclearization may be a pipe dream, but it is one worth fighting for.)

“But then…who should have that power?  Even by being asked, the question quickly reveals itself to be ‘nobody.’ Merely by dint of winning over undecideds in Ohio, one person can end civilization. A human being, woken up at 2:00AM, and told that the bombs are coming, and most people they’ve ever met may be killed, and they themselves might die horribly tonight, have to decide what to do. They have 5 or 6 minutes in which the literal fate of humankind rests in their hands. Even Ronald Reagan, rarely a deep thinker, couldn’t believe that the most important decision a human could ever make- the most important decision any human ever made- could come down to those few moments.”

Read the full post here, kids! And never sleep again.

“Fire and Fury”: With North Korea, Trump Plays To The Brink In A Game He Doesn’t Understand

 

First 30 Cities To Be Nuked

The Badlands seem nice this time of year

 

It is hard to say the world has been peaceful over the last 6 months, but it has more or less maintained the status quo. That’s been the only sigh of relief in the Trump Administration. The terror has been his rampage against our democracy, both by who he is and the actions of his administration, namely the DOJ. He hasn’t, as we say, been “tested”.

That’s over now.

North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded in a confidential assessment.

That Washington Post story was just the first terrifying news of the day. The second was the reaction of Donald Trump.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Mr. Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Now. North Korea having the capability to launch nuclear missiles is not Donald Trump’s fault, despite his belligerence and incompetence. It was not Barack Obama’s fault. It wasn’t even absolutely the fault of George W. Bush, who pulled out of a treaty and essentially ignored NK while they developed their first weapon.

In some ways, this was inevitable. There is a limit to the force the international community can put on a country that is content to be lawless and ignore, when needed, the basic needs of its citizens. The regime calculates exactly what pressure it can withstand internally and externally. It knows China doesn’t want it to collapse, and the military might it projects, no matter how briefly, onto Seoul makes the thought of war nearly unbearable.

That isn’t to say it had to play out this way, and I am sure that actual NK experts could have gamed out other scenarios. But what happened, with NK consistently pushing the envelope and withstanding sanctions, was probably the most likely one. Options were very few.

To say that Donald Trump doesn’t understand this is redundant; he doesn’t understand anything. He knows nothing about North Korea except that he could maybe get a better deal there, whatever that means. And he knows nothing about history or military strategy. He just knows that he needs to sound tough.

In a way, there is a case to be made for his rhetoric today. Right now, we are playing a very delicate game, where the regime needs to be appeased, and hopefully back down. In order to do that, they have to be convinced that they have crossed a very dangerous line and that they are in existential danger. Because Kim Jong Un isn’t a madman. He’s done an incredible job of maintaining and consolidating power despite being seen as a weak poof when entering office. And he’s not suicidal.

So the trick is to convince him that he needs that pushing this further would be suicidal while hoping that new sanctions, including by Russia and China, work (getting them on–board with sanctions is more a matter of North Korean intransigence and menace, but if the Trump admin wants to claim a diplomatic victory, I’m happy to give it to them. It isn’t entirely unearned). But you want to do this without stumbling into war.

That’s what frightens me. Going to the brink only works if you think the other guy is going to blink. It only works if you know the exact level of menace you can enact without crossing the line into actual nuclear war. You have to understand your enemy, and you have to act with a level head while pretending not to.

Both sides are doing this. One is led by a child dictator (who while not a madman can’t be seen as a genius, either). The other is led by a monomaniacal know-nothing who thinks he’s tough. This is very delicate, and I don’t know if Un has the ability to play it right. I know Trump doesn’t.

There are a few mitigating factors. One is that, despite some hysteria, I do think Trump knows that nuclear war is bad. He’s not eloquent about it, and he sometimes likes to talk about it like it is NBD, but that’s just to seem tough. I think he’d be too scared to pursue things. I also think he’s too lazy to really want to do anything other than issue tough-sounding statements. He wants to outsource actual problems to other people.  that Kelly, Mattis, McMaster, et al have a protocol to keep him from doing something

And, if I am wrong on that, I’m banking (hoping, even praying) that Kelly, Mattis, McMaster, et al have a protocol to keep him from doing something catastrophic.

But even these comforts are really very cold. He is the President, and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. He has to be taken seriously, even if he shouldn’t be. What he says and does matters, and he doesn’t know anything, refuses to learn anything, and acts entirely based on how he thinks it will make him look.

This is the real horror of the idiot Presidency. That nuclear war depends, to a large or small extent, but inarguably to some extent, on the most shallow, vain, and ignorant man in American public life, and maybe overall. This is the terror wrought because some people want to piss off liberals.

They’ll cheer for him with this. They’ll think this ridiculous baby is tough. I hope it works, obviously. I hope that the new sanctions force Un to back down while saving face. But Trump is making it nearly impossible for him to have a face-saving out. And that’s when things start to explode.

The Trump Nuclear Terror Shows The Godlike Power of the Presidency

 

Pictured: how the world ends

 

Over the last eight years, we’ve seen some pretty dramatic examples of the limits on Presidential power. When faced with nihilist obstructionism, even a talented politician like Barack Obama can only get so much done (and it’s been quite a bit, actually, which is amazing. If the Republicans were even just normal obstructionists, he could be getting fitted for Mt. Rushmore). Nevertheless, the limits on what a President can do haven’t really seeped in, even among many political writers, who get frustrated that Obama can’t wave a magic wand and make something happen. And don’t get me started on people who say stuff like “Why doesn’t he just fix the economy!?” That said, there is one little area where the President has pretty much unilateral authority, and that’s deciding whether or not to end mankind and destroy the sky.

As nuclear expert and deeply-unsettling-guy-to-talk-to-at-a-party Bruce Blair writes in Politico, there are essentially zero checks on Presidential powers when it comes to nuclear weapons, both as a matter of policy and convention. If the President authorizes a strike, it happens. And while we think of strike as maybe one ICBM, it would most likely involve hundreds of strikes on multiple targets, from at least two legs of the nuclear Triad.

The authorization for this strike comes in two main scenarios. One is a “first-strike”, an option which no President has taken off the table, though Obama apparently had to be persuaded to leave it in by an advisor, against his desire. This is in a time of war or an extreme circumstance. In the case of Obama, “(t)his adviser presented a scenario in which a quick U.S. nuclear strike offered the only available tool to eradicate an unfolding terrorist operation meant to spread deadly biological pathogens from a makeshift production laboratory in a remote location to cities worldwide.” Or, of course, he could just decide to on a whim, and short of a coup, the law would mandate following orders.

The second scenario is a President reacting to news of a strike, which could be true or false. Jimmy Carter almost received a briefing of a Russian attack, which turned out to be false. If a President is told that missiles have been launched, he or she has to decide to respond or not in a matter of minutes, literally. The briefing may be less than 30 seconds. And with that info, knowing that if the report is false, and they strike first, they’ll be responsible for the end of the world (since a counterstrike from, say, Russia, will be coming). If they do nothing, much of America will be destroyed, including any chance to fire back. Millions, and really billions, of lives are at stake. Not retaliating could be the end of America, but maybe not the world. And this decision has to be made in minutes.

Even just typing this is enough to induce panic and nausea. The thought of having to make that decision is unbearable. The hook of Blair’s piece was about Trump having this power, which, given his ignorance on nuclear affairs (and everything else), his thin skin, and his swaggering moron temperament, seems like a bad idea. Security officials are already nervous about giving him even the barest of bare-bones briefings. The fate of the world lingering at the tips of his short fingers is too much to comprehend.

But then…who should have that power?  Even by being asked, the question quickly reveals itself to be “nobody.” Merely by dint of winning over undecideds in Ohio, one person can end civilization. A human being, woken up at 2:00AM, and told that the bombs are coming, and most people they’ve ever met may be killed, and they themselves might die horribly tonight, have to decide what to do. They have 5 or 6 minutes in which the literal fate of humankind rests in their hands. Even Ronald Reagan, rarely a deep thinker, couldn’t believe that the most important decision a human could ever make- the most important decision any human ever made- could come down to those few moments.

Think of Reagan’s slipping mental capacity in the second term. Think that he was still the sole authority.

It isn’t just Reagan, or W, or Trump, or Palin. I respect Hillary Clinton, but am sickened by the thought that she might have that power. I respect and admire Barack Obama, deeply, and am revolted that he has the ability to end mankind. Did you vote for that? Did anyone? It is the ultimate exercise in big government.

Christopher Hitchens said in an essay (though I can’t remember where) that nuclear weapons were inherently undemocratic, because they put us all on the front lines of a war no one supported. We could all die, terribly, in either an unseen instant of light and fire, a roiling concussive blast, through the radiation of agony, or from the collapse of civlization, the horrors that will entail, and the slow starvation of a nuclear winter. And the President of the United States has that power. So does Vladimir Putin, who, thanks to a degraded alert system, might have as little as two minutes to decide.

When we talk about the Presidency, and its powers, we rarely discuss this. We talk about an “Imperial Presidency” because of executive orders on immigration, or passing a health care regulation that some people don’t like. But this rarely comes up, or if it does, it comes up in a cliche- do you want his finger on the button? But I don’t think that we have a firm grasp on the kind of power that being the sole authority on the largest nuclear force in the world gives the President. It’s the power over every single life, now and in the future.

I think we don’t because it is too terrifying to contemplate, and if we did so, we’d be too paralyzed to act. How could you actually vote? How could you think about anything else? And one reason it isn’t talked about a lot, other than ear-covering cognitive dissonance, is because to really think about it would prove that nuclear weapons, and their elimination, should be a top priority, for everyone.

We’ve had nuclear peace for a few decades. It has to last until the end of the world, one way or the other (because if it doesn’t, the world as we know it is at an end). That the power to break that piece shouldn’t be in the hands of Donald Trump goes without saying. That it shouldn’t be in the hands of anyone should be equally clear.