At Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, there’s an obligatory pass-fail, one-credit course, “Map of the World,” that covers “the evolution of the modern political map of each region and major nationalist, ethnic, boundary and territorial conflicts and tension areas.” Even if it takes a student four years, no one graduates without passing “Map of the World.”
The current debate (I use that term generously) over the nuclear agreement with Iran suggests that Georgetown should open the class to Congress – maybe an obligatory night course with an annual refresher – to introduce members to the world far beyond our powerful, privileged “American Exceptionalist” borders. Perhaps no one should be permitted to vote on critical international issues without passing “Map of the World.”
“The pride and self-righteousness of powerful nations,” wrote theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “are a greater hazard to their success than the machinations of their foes.”
Today, I find something profoundly un-American happening in Washington, something profoundly unsettling about the tone taken by opponents of the agreement negotiated between the P5+1 and Iran.
Something so profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-reason, so provincial, so morally and spiritually offensive, so wrapped in layers of prejudice and stereotype that are disingenuous and dangerous that it makes me fear for our future as a diverse, pluralistic nation.
“He was impregnably armoured,” Graham Greene wrote of Alden Pyle in The Quiet American, “by his good intentions and his ignorance.” Countries, even “impregnably armoured” countries like ours, are often unable to confront their own history, what they’ve become or how they are perceived by much of the global community – and without confronting how they’re perceived, rightly or wrongly, they are unable to act justly.
Until we are able, for example, to acknowledge that there are places in the world that have legitimate grievances against us, both historical and current, we’ll be unable to negotiate agreements to reduce tensions and bring just peace. By negotiating as though we are the sole aggrieved party, that others are sinners, is wrong – no one is without sin – and we let ourselves off too easily.
As I have written, I support this agreement as I believe there can be no resolution to a range of Middle East issues without Iran’s participation. Iran is a player. There are also substantial reasons for wanting to examine this agreement carefully and to be attentive to the intellectual arguments for opposing it, but the level of discourse led by the Republican-majority Congress, by Republican candidates for president and by the Netanyahu-supporting advocates for Israel is condescending and dangerous.
We reference the 1979 hostage crisis, but Iran isn’t permitted to reference the 1953 CIA coup that overthrew their legitimately elected government. We reference Iranian “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” cries, but we don’t hear congressional cries for Iranian regime change. We reference the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Forces, but they aren’t allowed to reference the Mossad-trained Savak that tormented Iranians for decades in the service of the American supported regime of the shah.
I really didn’t want to write about Iran today, but when the self-righteous Mike Huckabee said he believes that the president of the United States is a fellow traveler with the Nazis and fascists who killed over 6 million Jews during World War II, there was no choice.
“It is so naive that (Obama) would trust the Iranians,” said Huckabee. “By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”
In the days that followed, as I watched Huckabee double and triple-down on bigotry – even in the face of widespread condemnations of his statement – as I watched members of Congress and Fox News commentators attack the Iran agreement and President Obama with deceptive and dishonest arguments, I realized that the comments reflected a much deeper malaise that affects our country.
A malaise of anti-intellectualism and provincialism: Only winning matters.
Witness Sen. Ted Cruz: “If this deal is consummated, it will make the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism.”
Witness Sen. Tom Cotton, who said that American Secretary of State John Kerry “acted like Pontius Pilate.”
These elected representatives of the world’s sole super power spoke out of ignorance and prejudice, spoke out of the weakness of the petty, the vain and the arrogant. They incited hatred; they spoke out of ignorance of the world – one of a failure to know, or care, about the complexities and dynamics beyond our shores other than those influenced by their common biases and assumptions.
By not fearing war, they betray themselves. By not fearing war, they’re unable to envision peace or justice.
The path forward is complicated and requires courage to counter prevailing prejudices. For example, I agree with Sen. Kelly Ayotte that “there should be a robust debate about whether this agreement will fully protect America, our allies and our national security interests,” but I disagree with the part of her statement where she states that the agreement “legitimizes Iran’s enrichment program” – as though Iran doesn’t have that right.
All signatories to the NPT, including Iran, are entitled to a civilian nuclear program, and it was never the P5+1 intention to eliminate that capacity – only to bring it under verifiable control. That’s not an obscure detail. That’s a well-known factor that influenced the agreement’s outcome – and is important to acknowledge.
Iran gets to stay nuclear. In spite of the cacophony of historically inaccurate and intellectually dishonest speech attacking Iran that’s not going away, there are more than 2,500 mostly Western-trained Iranian nuclear scientists who aren’t going to go away and who can’t be bombed away. A program started by President Eisenhower under the “Atoms for Peace” program isn’t going to disappear.
Critics of the agreement ignore its context and its importance. Obama’s comment – “We’re not going to solve the problems of Syria unless there’s buy-in from the Russians, the Iranians, the Turks, our Gulf partners. It’s too chaotic. . . . Iran is one of those players, and I think that it’s important for them to be part of that conversation” – is a reflection of what is at stake.
The agreement isn’t, as Rick Santorum cried, “The worst, most dangerous agreement any president has ever entered into, and it is an existential threat, obviously, to the state of Israel.”
It isn’t an existential threat to either Israel or to America, both of which are nuclear powers.
What is an existential threat, I believe, are those Americans so committed to denying America, the P5+1 and Iran the opportunity to move toward resolving outstanding Middle East conflicts by first containing Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions that they are willing to risk war rather than confront peace.
As Congress adjourns, America has roughly, as Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote, “Fifty days to choose diplomacy and peace over a belligerent and habitual rush to war. Making peace is hard work; making peace with enemies requires perseverance, discipline, and firm resolve.”
“Who is truly mighty?” the Talmud asks. “He who turns his enemies into friends.”
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.