On August 5, US President Barack Obama compared the rhetoric employed by opponents of the P5+1/Iran nuclear negotiations to that used by the Bush administration during the run-up to America’s catastrophic war in Iraq, noting (Washington Post, 8/5/15) that “many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.”
Indeed, opposition to the Iran deal has been all but apocalyptic, with Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee going so far as to claim (Business Insider, 7/26/15) the agreement will “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” Similarly, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas—also a Republican presidential hopeful—asserted (Huffington Post, 5/5/05) that “this deal makes war a certainty.” Huckabee and Cruz’s attitudes echo the position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who warned (Times of Israel, 7/20/15) that “they say this agreement pushes war away but in fact it brings war closer.”
Yet Obama’s own rhetoric in defense of the Iran deal shares more in common with his opposition than he might like to admit. In the same speech (Washington Post, 8/5/15) during which he criticized Iraq War proponents for opposing the Iran deal, Obama stated that, “absent a diplomatic resolution, the result could be war with major disruptions to the global economy, and even greater instability in the Middle East.”
Obama’s rhetorical tactic illuminates the new reality of American foreign policy discourse: For nearly all commentators, regardless of their position, war is the only alternative to that position.
This situation is little different in corporate US media. The New York Times (7/14/15) ran an editorial favoring the negotiations on their likelihood to curtail Iranian nuclear ambitions, titled “An Iran Nuclear Deal That Reduces the Chance of War.” Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s GPS, similarly argued in support of the negotiations in his weekly Washington Post column (4/2/15) that, short of the proposed deal or continued sanctions against Iran (which he views as unlikely), “the United States would effectively have to go to war.”
Philip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote for Politico (8/11/15), in an article titled “War Actually Is an Alternative to Iran Deal,” that “to walk away from this good nuclear deal with Iran based on the hope that it will behave differently would be to take an enormously dangerous risk.” CBS’s Face the Nation (The Hill, 8/9/15) ran an interview with Vermont senator and Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders in which he said: “The alternative of not reaching an agreement, you know what it is? It’s war.”
The other side of the coin is aired in traditionally conservative news outlets. On the day the draft agreement was announced, Sean Hannity hosted former Vice President Dick Cheney on his Fox News program (7/14/15), during which Cheney ominously warned that the world is now “closer to the actual use of nuclear weapons than we’ve been at any time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.” In an op-ed published in the Washington Times (8/10/15), Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation wrote that supporters of the deal
The specter of war in American foreign policy discourse has thus produced a rather troubling framework: Advocates of diplomacy with Iran cite war as the inevitable alternative, while critics of diplomacy cite war as its inevitable outcome. No matter which side you choose, it seems, you are choosing war.
What can account for this foreboding simplicity through which politicians and the popular media analyze foreign policy issues? On the one hand, it naturally arises from a society that has been on a constant war footing since September 2001. In his 1999 book Capturing the Complexity of Conflict, Dennis Sandole of George Mason University suggests:
A situation characterized by increases in the frequency of war at increasing rates would probably involve the socialization of actors into aggressive cognitive sets whereby they continually expected to wage war, always prepared for it, and, indeed, always found reasons for waging it.
This rings true for American foreign policy in the new millennium, bizarrely culminating in Obama promoting peace with Iran by brandishing his war credentials (Intercept, 8/6/15). Despite running on a campaign to wind down America’s wars and his ongoing rhetoric advocating such an end, Obama has paradoxically expanded the US war front to half a dozen countries in the Middle East.
Compounding the aggressive cognitive set that seems to have developed in 21st century America is the codification of George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war, on which the dire predictions of both advocates and critics of the Iran deal are founded. One might think the disaster that became of Operation Iraqi Freedom would be enough to thoroughly discredit this concept, yet both Obama and his critics envision a preemptive war with Iran as the inevitable outcome of the respective alternative.
On the other hand, this discourse represents a profound lack of imagination with regard to the set of possibilities presented by foreign relations. The either-this-or-war binary with which both sides of the debate analyze the Iran deal ignores the historical reality that failures in nuclear nonproliferation have produced a variety of outcomes.
Both sanctions and diplomacy failed to inhibit nuclear development in North Korea, yet, while tensions remain high, there has been no war as a result. Pakistan and India developed nuclear weapons in the face of fierce opposition from the West, and now the United States conducts positive diplomatic relations with both countries. And of course Israel itself is known to possess nuclear weapons in defiance of international treaties, likely as the result of collaboration with the United States, and politicians on both sides of the aisle enthusiastically proclaim the two countries to share an “unbreakable” bond.
Perhaps the most poignant counter-example, however, is the recent rapprochement with Cuba, a nation that briefly harbored Soviet nuclear warheads only a hundred or so miles from the US mainland. The nuclear threat was abated through rapid diplomacy with America’s chief enemies in Moscow, but relations with Cuba continued to be acrimonious for another half-century. Yet, aside from the Bay of Pigs debacle orchestrated by the CIA in 1961, there has been no resultant war with Cuba, and formal diplomatic relations have finally resumed.
A pair of psychologists from Iowa State University, Nicholas Carnagey and Craig A. Anderson, published a study in 2007 titled Changes in Attitudes Towards War and Violence After September 11, 2001, demonstrating that positive attitudes towards war in the United States increased markedly after the 9/11 attacks. The authors commented that, preceding the run-up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, “the initial framing of the attacks (by the president and a wide range of news services) heavily emphasized war themes” and that “such salient framing effects are important determinants of attitudes and attitude change.”
One has to wonder at the extent of the mainstream media’s continued influence on foreign policy discussions fourteen years later. From Fox News’ annual coverage of the “war on Christmas” to MSNBC’s frequent transmissions from the “war on women,” even domestic ideological debates are framed in terms of armed conflict. Fareed Zakaria brought up the Iran deal on GPS again this week (CNN, 8/16/15), during which Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told him that “Iran has been at war with America for 36 years.” Zakaria went on to discuss Russia’s “war on cheese” later in the show.
In fact, in the 1980s, during its metaphorical “war” with the United States, Iran experienced a much more real and devastating 8-year war with Iraq—there are numerous monuments to the war throughout the Islamic Republic, including, notably, one commemorating its Jewish soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice (Haaretz, 12/18/14).
Saba Torabian and Marina Abalakina, another team of psychologists whose study is titled Attitudes Toward War in the United States and Iran, speculate that this war could account for the difference in attitudes they found between college-age adults in Iran and the United States in 2012. “Our results revealed that Iranian students who experienced the Iran/Iraq War had more negative general attitudes toward war,” they explained, and “the cross-national comparison showed that American college students had more positive attitudes toward war than Iranian college students.”
With voters under 30 comprising one-third of the total electorate in Iran, there’s little doubt that the younger generation played an instrumental role in President Hassan Rouhani’s election, as their American counterparts did in Obama’s (Al-Monitor, 6/24/13).
The paradox in the United States is that, although it has been constantly at war since September 14, 2001, and has conducted military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Syria, the number of Americans who have had direct contact with these wars remains very small as a percentage of the country’s total population. Thus predisposed to have more positive attitudes toward conflict, one could imagine that the unrelenting talk of war from both sides of seemingly every debate aired in the US media stands to intensify the aggressive cognitive sets Sandole predicted in 1999 and the psychologists at Iowa State found in late 2001.
The threat of war is real: A supporter of the deal has already introduced legislation in the House authorizing military force against Iran (Congress.gov, H.J.Res.62). But history shows us that peace is almost always an alternative, notwithstanding the variety of possible scenarios that could confront American foreign policy. The specter of war in US media belies this truth, and all sides of the debate bear responsibility for its current pervasiveness in the context of Iran.
Regardless of the outcome of the nuclear deal, peace will remain among the possibilities going forward. Those of us who are exhausted with war might hope that, as the deadline for congressional action on the agreement approaches, more imaginative commentary might finally be given a voice.