War Stories

Obama’s Republican Foreign Policy Critics Don’t Understand How the World Works

They seem to think that “hitting them hard” is the only way to get people to do things.

President Barack Obama leaves after he delivered a statement on the relations between U.S. and Iran in the cabinet room of the White House on Jan. 17, 2016 in Washington, D.C.  

Aude Guerrucci–Pool/Getty Images

Wherever your stance on the political spectrum, there’s no point listening to Republicans rail against President Obama’s policies. No matter what he does, his foreign policy is feckless, clueless, or downright treasonous according to GOP talking points.

A case in point is the past week’s diplomatic feats with Iran. First, a crisis over the seizure of two U.S. patrol boats, which had trespassed into Iranian waters, was settled peacefully in a day. Then, the Iranians were declared in compliance with the nuclear deal that was signed in July, as a result of which decades-long economic sanctions were lifted. Finally, five Americans were released from Iranian jails as part of a prisoner exchange.

And yet the leading Republican presidential candidates denounced these deals—which would be impressive achievements in any commander-in-chief’s record-book—as signs of weakness, cowardice, and worse.

In August, when Obama was making a strong pitch for the Iran nuclear deal, he told a group of columnists in an on-the-record session, “If I presented a cure for cancer, getting legislation passed to move that forward would be a nail-biter.” That understates what the response would be in today’s eve-of-Iowa frenzy. The row of GOP contenders would denounce the cure as a jobs-killer (all those nurses out of a job at Sloan-Kettering) and an aggravation of the housing crisis (all those people, who should have died, crowding the market).

You might think the prisoner release would put the Republicans in an awkward position. They’ve been pushing Obama to get the Americans freed for months, and now, here they are, back home with their families. Donald Trump tried to resolve the cognitive dissonance by claiming personal credit for the release. “I’ve been hitting them hard, and I think I might’ve had something to do with it,” Trump said in a campaign stop on Saturday. (A minute later, though, he denounced the release anyway, saying it should have happened three or four years ago. How, he didn’t reveal.)

Even by Trump standards, the egomania embedded in this remark is staggering. But it also reflects something more dangerous about not just Trump but most of the leading GOP candidates: a view that “hitting them hard” is the only way to get people to do things, and that patient diplomacy is for suckers and weaklings. As we now know, the prisoner-release came as the result of 14 months of negotiations between U.S. and Iranian diplomats—who, by the way, would have had no way of even speaking with one another, had it not been for the ties built up during the three years of talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

Sen. Marco Rubio wrote an op-ed for RedState, denouncing the whole complex of Iranian-American deals as “appeasement.” This is the stuff of rhetorical hot air. What territory or interests did the United States cede in any of these deals? Rubio, Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, and others denounce the $150 billion that Obama is “giving” to Iran as part of the nuclear deal—not acknowledging, in some cases perhaps not knowing, that the money (more like $100 billion, minus $50 billion that will instantly go to pay off debts) is Iran’s own assets, which were frozen in response to Iran’s nuclear program. Now that the program is largely dismantled, as required the assets are unfrozen. That’s what the nuclear deal—negotiated by the United States, Iran, and five other powers (England, France, Russia, China, and Germany)—was all about.

For its part of the deal, Iran was required not merely to freeze its nuclear program but to substantially roll it back. Specifically, it had to dismantle two-thirds of its centrifuges and 98 percent of its enriched uranium, to fill its Arak plutonium reactor with concrete, and, for verification, to allow international inspectors unprecedented access to its facilities. The big news this weekend, in this regard, is that the International Atomic Energy Agency—which monitors compliance with the deal—announced that, at this stage of the deal, Iran has fulfilled its end of the bargain, ahead of schedule.

That’s what triggered the lifting of economic sanctions. (Rubio wrote that the release “rewards bad behavior,” but in fact it rewards good behavior.) And officials acknowledge that, while the prisoner-exchange was not an explicit part of the deal, side-room conversations during the nuclear talks kept the issue alive and accelerated progress, so that, when the time came, no extraneous issues would impede sanctions-relief. If Trump wants to keep score, tallying which side won, lost, or compromised the most, it was the Iranians who felt more pressure on this one.

The events of the past week reveal a few things about the Republican critique of Obama’s foreign policy. First, it is completely uninformed on substantive grounds: The jeremiads against the nuclear accord in particular reflect a deep-seated ignorance of what’s in the nuclear deal. Second, it is completely uninformed on procedural grounds: The candidates know nothing about the diplomatic back-and-forth that produced the nuclear deal, the prisoner release, or the release earlier this week of the 10 U.S. sailors who’d somehow crossed into Iranian territorial waters. Trump rails against the “stupid” deals concocted by “political hacks”: If the deals were what he says they are, he might have a point. But they aren’t, and he doesn’t. (We are still awaiting the list of his advisers on these issues; he says that, as president, he’d appoint “brilliant people,” “the best people,” but who are they?)

As Obama acknowledged in his press statement Sunday morning, the United States and Iran still have conflicting interests on many issues. Iran still supports terrorist movements in the Middle East, and it recently test-fired ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Sanctions imposed for those reasons, by the way, remain in place. In fact, shortly after the prisoners were out of Iranian airspace, Obama imposed new sanctions against Iranians involved in the ballistic-missile program.

But the centuries-long history of international relations shows that it’s possible for adversaries—even, during the Soviet-American Cold War, bitter foes who have the ability to incinerate each other in a matter of minutes—to negotiate deals that benefit the security interests of both sides, and to do so in ways that might open up avenues of accord in other realms worth exploring.

This is what Obama’s approach to foreign policy—which isn’t so different from the approach of many past presidents—has wrought this week. It’s an approach and an outcome that most of the Republican candidates not only couldn’t pull off but explicitly, if bizarrely, condemn.