Fareed Zakaria had a column out yesterday dissecting and demolishing New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s argument for opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. I won’t try to duplicate his arguments on the merits. I don’t think I can improve on them. But I have wanted for the last week to address Schumer’s decision.
As you may know, in the midst of last week’s Fox-GOP-Trump debate, Schumer leaked the news that he planned to vote against the deal when it comes before the Senate for review. There are a few things to say about the manner of the leak. As the Senator himself would no doubt agree, no one is more adept, experienced, or desirous of press attention than Schumer. The timing was no accident. It seemed aimed at creating as little splash as possible. Given his status as a prominent, senior, and outspokenly pro-Israel Senator from New York, there is only so much that he could do to limit the impact and reaction. But this was clearly an attempt to do so. And it did get buried to some degree in the Trump Debate/GOP Meltdown/Blood Drama. Schumer has also said that since this is his position, he will of course lobby others to follow his lead. But he has done so not altogether convincingly. Take all this together and I think it is possible that Schumer believes this to be a free vote for him personally – that he can vote in opposition, either knowing that it will pass (sustain a presidential veto) or at least that he won’t be blamed for it going down.
We’ll know after the vote how that all shook out. And in terms of what one makes of Schumer, there is some difference over what the truth turns out to be. Just after Schumer’s announcement, James Fallows said that it was one thing for Schumer to vote this way himself but if he lifts a finger to lobby other senators against the deal, he should be disqualified from becoming the next Senate Majority/Minority Leader, an office he very much wishes to fill.
I would take it a step further. I think Schumer should be disqualified on the basis of this decision alone. In fact, I would personally find it difficult to ever vote for Schumer again as my Senator, though I doubt he’ll lose much sleep over that since he is amazingly entrenched as New York’s senior senator.
I say all this with some regret since I’ve always liked Schumer. And I should make clear that I see fidelity to a President of one’s own party – even on an issue central to his presidency – as a non-issue in this case. The issue is that this agreement is a matter of grave importance. And Schumer’s position is wrong. Indeed, what makes it an issue for me is that it is more than wrong. His stated arguments are simply nonsensical and obviously tendentious. In this case, Schumer’s ample brain power stands as an indictment against him. There are plenty of senators who are voting against this deal because of a combination of bellicosity and partisan fervor. And there are a good number of them who either cannot or do not care to apply a real logical analysis of the question at hand. Let’s put that more bluntly, they’re either lazy or dumb. And of course this general point applies to senators on both sides of the aisle.
But Schumer is neither lazy nor dumb. And that’s why his decision is really unforgivable.
He argues for instance that even if even if the agreement keeps Iran from building nuclear warheads for a decade (false time frame, by the way), this deal makes things worse because the nuclear Iran ten years from now will be a supercharged Iran made more powerful and bold by sanctions relief.
This is a stupid argument.
North Korea remains under strangling sanctions and barely has an economy at all. That has not prevented it from building a robust nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. Especially if you believe that Iran wants nuclear weapon for doomsday purposes, getting nuclear weapons with a more vibrant economy 10 years from now hardly makes a difference. And, yes, as long as we’re on the point, the ten year time frame is bogus.
Schumer also calls the 24 days canard “troubling”. Again, here Schumer’s own smarts indicts him. He’s not that dumb. We shouldn’t accept Fox News arguments as legitimate points of argument from someone who aspires to be Senate Majority Leader.
Finally he notes that the deal only makes sense if you believe that Iran will become more moderate and less belligerent under the deal. Again, a bad faith argument.
I think there are actually good reasons to think the consequences of the deal may lead to that outcome. To at least grant that this is a possibility one need only look at the fact that the Iranian reformers we allegedly love are all for it and the hardliners in the regime are all against it. But the deal is actually more important if you have the most dire read of the regime and its future. If you do think the worst, is it better to put in place what is unquestionably the most rigorous inspections and surveillance regime ever devised or leave the Iranians entirely free to start building nuclear weapons immediately? The answer to this question is so blindingly obvious it really ends the debate.
As I argued in another post a few weeks ago, I think the biggest lesson of the Iraq War is that if the alternative is war, it is almost always better to kick cans down the road rather than “resolve” them now. Not always. But almost always. Because wars destroy a lot of stuff and kill lots of people and create mammoth collateral damage – human, diplomatic, economic, everything – the consequences of which take years and decades to grapple with. Especially when you are the stronger power, we need to make real what is usually spoken simply as a bromide that war really is the option of last resort. If we’re the weaker power or if we could beat Iran on the battlefield today but couldn’t ten years from now, maybe we can’t kick the can down the road. But that’s obviously preposterous. Iran is at best a regional military power. We have the biggest and strongest military in the world. All options remain open to us, basically forever.
As I said above, the “10 year” timeline is almost as bogus as the 24 days canard. But even if it were true, keeping Iran’s nuclear ambitions bottled up for a decade would be a great deal. Nothing prevents us from threatening war or doing anything else when the bogus time limit expires.
But what about keeping sanctions on or tightening them and demanding a better deal?
Again, Schumer’s smarts indicts him. The sanctions have worked because the global powers have all backed them. Those powers backed them to force a deal something like this. They will not continue sanctions or tighten them when the goal of the sanctions, in their view, has already been met. This is not 1960 or even 1980. Sanctions by the U.S. alone won’t do it.
It has become de riguer to say that this deal has problems or isn’t perfect but it’s worth taking or better than the alternatives. That’s really a cop out by those who aren’t willing to make a more honest argument. Unless one’s definition of a good or perfect deal is one where you get everything you want, entirely on your own terms, this judgment is wrong. The way to evaluate a deal is whether you get the things you need and whether you made the most efficient use of the pressure and power you had to bring to bear. On these terms, it’s a pretty good deal.
So why did Schumer oppose the deal? I think he moves in circles, personal and financial, where this deal is simply anathema and he doesn’t feel he can or wants to buck that opinion. He may also believe he can have his cake and eat it too – vote against, satisfy, and stay good with key supporters and not block its adoption. This is actually what I see as the most likely answer. He may also feel uncomfortable enough on this hot seat that he simply won’t look at the logic of the situation.
I can know and frankly I don’t care. The bright line is that he’s smart enough to know better.
I’ve heard some say that this creates tension for him “on the left” in his quest to become Minority or Majority Leader. This is silly pundit talk. This isn’t the public option. This isn’t something supported by the foreign policy “left”. It’s very basic and mainstream and necessary. The fact that the neoconservatives who gamed the country into the Iraq disaster favor it does not change that.
Democratic senators who don’t reconsider support for Schumer as the leader of their caucus are making a big, big mistake. He should be ruled out of consideration for the job.