President Barack Obama, seeking support for the nuclear deal with Iran, is reminding the American public how fearmongering and accusations of unpatriotism pressured lawmakers into supporting the invasion of Iraq.
Obama called the debate over the Iran agreement the most important foreign policy discussion since 2002. “Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal,” he said in a speech at American University. “They labeled themselves strong and decisive while dismissing those who disagreed as weak, even appeasers of a malevolent adversary. More than a decade later we still live with the consequences.” As a presidential candidate, he pledged to end the Iraq War, but more importantly, “We had to end a mindset that got us there in the first place.”
The near-unanimous vote in Congress in 2002 to authorize the use of military force against Iraq, based in part on intelligence later proved to be faulty, was one of the formative events for Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, though he had yet to join the Senate. More than a decade later, the president is taking his sales pitch for the Iran deal to the public, holding the agreement up as evidence that his doctrine of diplomacy-first multilateral foreign policy is the United States’ best security insurance.
“Congressional rejection of this deal will leave any U.S. administration absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with one option: another war in the Middle East. I say this not to be provocative, I am stating a fact,” he said. “The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some form of war. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months, but soon.”
The White House chose American University for its parallels with President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech urging de-escalation between Cold War rivals edging toward nuclear war. Obama said Kennedy “rejected the prevailing attitude … that equated security with a perpetual war footing” and helped win the Cold War “without firing a shot at the Soviets.”
He asserted, “This deal is not just the best deal among alternatives, this is the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated.”
But his administration officials, anticipating strong resistance, embarked on an aggressive lobbying effort to garner support for the deal even before it was announced on July 14. That push that has only intensified now that the clock is ticking on Congress’s mandated 60-day review period. This week lawmakers retreat home for the long August recess, but they will return to decide on Sept. 17 whether to disapprove or approve the deal, or take no action. (The Iran Review Act allows the House and Senate to seek a 12-day extension by sending a joint resolution to the president.)
House leaders already announced Tuesday that the lower chamber will vote in September on a resolution of disapproval introduced by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and the Senate had indicated they’ll do the same, after an unusual period set aside for debate without any committee meeting interruptions. While the Republican majority has support in the House and Senate to disapprove the deal, they don’t look to have enough to override the veto that Obama has vowed for any legislation that comes across his desk threatening the deal he fought so hard to achieve.
Obama’s Wednesday speech came just after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged thousands of American Jews to oppose it via webcast on Tuesday, saying, “As a result of this deal, there will be more terrorism, there will be more attacks, and more people will die.” Several Jewish House Democrats have come out against the deal, including Rep. Steve Israel, N.Y., a member of the leadership.
But other notable Democratic leaders have given their support in public statements and floor speeches in recent days, such as the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, Calif., who was initially a skeptic; and Sens. Tim Kaine, Va.; Bill Nelson, Fla.; and Barbara Boxer, Calif. Kaine serves on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, with Nelson also on Armed Services and Boxer on Foreign Relations. The three Democratic senators joined five others who have already explicitly endorsed the deal, including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the party whip. Durbin declined to give a vote count Tuesday but said more Democratic endorsements will be trickling out in the coming days.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted these divisions among the Democrats in a floor speech Wednesday as evidence of bipartisan skepticism of the deal.
“There’s growing bipartisan concern. It’s widespread and it’s well-founded,” he said. “I hope [Obama] will avoid tired, obviously untrue talking points about this being some choice between a bad deal and war … what I’m asking is for President Obama to join us in rising to the moment.”
Kaine was expected to face pressure from Republicans to oppose the deal, as one of the key architects of the Iran Review Act, which granted Congress the right to review the deal arbitrated by the U.S. and its “P5+1” international partners. That bill, shepherded by ranking member Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., passed the Senate in May 98-1.
Corker, who’s known for his relative congeniality toward the White House, has expressed increasing anger in continuing hearings on the deal with the administration’s argument that opponents are wielding the kind of rhetoric that browbeat some into supporting the Iraq War.
McCain also rejected this portrayal in his opening statement from the center chair at an Armed Services Committee hearing on the deal Wednesday morning.
“The administration suggests that any criticism of this deal is tantamount to a call to war,” he said, noting that military leaders had also “rejected the administration’s false choice,” by testifying that there remain a range of options with or without the deal, though most backed it as making the necessity of military action less likely. McCain continued, “Such scare tactics are to be expected from this administration, but they have no place in a debate of this magnitude.”
Obama said Wednesday he has not hesitated to authorize force when necessary. But he argued opponents of the deal — including McCain, though he wasn’t named — “accept the choice of war.” “They argue that surgical strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities will be quick and painless.”
“But if we’ve learned anything from the last decade, it’s that wars in general and wars in the Middle East in particular are anything but simple. The only certainty in war is human suffering, uncertain costs, unintended consequences,” he said. “On the front end, ask tough questions … Resist conventional wisdom and the drumbeat of war. Worry less about being labeled weak, worry more about getting it right.”