Proponents are exultant , believing that President Obama has finally secured a legacy in foreign affairs. Critics (and I am among them) believe that the United States has made a foolish bargain, especially since the president’s foreign policy legacy has already been secured in the morgues of Syria and the occupied territories of Ukraine.
Whether a nuclear agreement is a good or bad idea, however, it is not anything like the deal Ronald Reagan made in 1987 with the then-Soviet Union to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. This is so obvious, and so poor a historical analogy, that it should not even need to be said.
And yet, die-hard defenders of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran have been using it anyway, in a desperate attempt to shield a terrible policy from conservative critics under Reagan’s name. Even President Obama himself has invoked Reagan (and Richard Nixon), searching for an analogy somewhere between Reagan in Moscow and Nixon in China.
Here’s Peter Beinart, for example, in The Atlantic last week:
In 1987, American hawks bitterly attacked Reagan for signing the INF agreement , the most sweeping arms-reduction treaty of the Cold War. But the tougher it became for Soviet hardliners to portray the United States as menacing, the tougher it became for them to justify their repression at home.
This is staggeringly wrong, and even completely backward, but let us forgive Beinart and ascribe his error, like Reagan said of Walter Mondale, to his youth and inexperience. Beinart’s strong support for President Obama might be clouding his judgment, or perhaps he does not know better.
But Joe Cirincione, a prominent member of the arms control community for years and now head of the Ploughshares Fund, definitely knows better. And yet, Cirincione gushed last week to MSNBC’s Alex Witt that “not since Reagan have we had a security agreement as long lasting, as sweeping, as historic” as the deal with Iran “could be.” And the Chicago Tribune even honored the memory of the Gipper for standing up to the hardliners in his own party to seek nuclear peace in the blessed year of 1987.
This analogy is so wrong in so many ways that it is hard to know where to start, but there are two important differences between now and 1987. First, President Obama is not Ronald Reagan. Whether Democrats secretly would like him to be is another matter, but Reagan had a credibility among America’s adversaries and a respect among America’s major allies that President Obama has never enjoyed.
Second, Iran is not like the Soviet Union of 1987. The USSR under the leadership of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was a spent force, a state – unlike Iran – already repudiating its revolutionary ideology and looking for a way out of the dead end of its own recent history.
President Obama’s supporters will no doubt bristle at the unflattering comparison with Reagan, but so be it. From Bashar Assad to Vladimir Putin, enemy leaders have run roughshod over Barack Obama, who entered office insisting he’d talk to anybody, without preconditions. Reagan, by contrast, entered office by dumping a bucket of cold water – and perhaps not from the cleanest bucket, either – over the old men of the Kremlin, calling them liars and scoundrels. Reagan had Caspar Weinberger building up U.S. and NATO power arm in arm with Margaret Thatcher and other leaders; President Obama has National Security Adviser Susan Rice calling her German counterpart a name so vile it cannot even be reprinted with asterisks.
But let us accept, for the sake of argument, that President Obama has more credibility with the Iranians than many of his critics assume. Even if that is true, Iran in 2015 is not nearly like the Soviet wreck Reagan finally forced to the table. The people invoking Reagan’s 1987 success conveniently forget that Reagan first engaged in six brutal years of wrestling with a Soviet Union led by dangerous men like former KGB chief Yuri Andropov. Indeed, Soviet-American relations in Reagan’s first term were so tense they led a then-prominent arms control advocate (and general hysteric) named Helen Caldicott to declare in 1983 that if Reagan were re-elected, nuclear war between East and West “was a mathematical certainty.”
Reagan, unlike Obama, held firm to his initial position. In 1981, he proposed that both NATO and the USSR remove the offending weapons in Europe entirely. This “zero option” was dismissed out of hand by the Kremlin, and negotiations stalled for months on end. Finally, in 1983, the Soviets threatened to walk out of further talks in Geneva. The Americans did the unthinkable, and let the Soviets leave. This is what “no deal is better than a bad deal” really looks like.