Columns » Gene Lyons

The Obama doctrine

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If he accomplished nothing else during his presidency, Barack Obama has surely earned a place in the Bad Political Analogies Hall of Fame. According to savants on Fox News and right-wing editorial pages, Obama is both Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who capitulated to Nazi territorial demands in 1938.

That is, to the more fervid exponents of the Sore Loser Party, Obama is both a psychotic dictator and a spineless appeaser of tyrants.

(I am indebted for this insight to Washington attorney Mike Godwin, promulgator of "Godwin's Law," which holds that the first person to play the Hitler card in a political argument automatically loses.)

I'm thinking the law also needs a Chamberlain corollary, because to the Permanent War Caucus on the Republican right, every American president who negotiates an arms pact with our putative enemies gets accused of weakening national security. Always and with no known exceptions.

President Nixon got compared to Neville Chamberlain for his (strategically brilliant) opening to China, as well as for the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Soviet Union.

In 1988, something called the Conservative Caucus Inc. took out full-page newspaper ads arguing that "appeasement is as unwise in 1988 as in 1938." The ad mocked President Reagan with Chamberlain's iconic umbrella and compared Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to Hitler.

In 1989, of course, the Berlin Wall fell and the U.S.S.R. imploded.

New York magazine's Jonathan Chait sums up the right's paradoxical case against Obama, weakling dictator: "He is naive in the face of evil, desperate for agreement, more willing to help his enemies than his friends. The problem is that conservatives have made this same diagnosis of every American president for 70 years. ... Their analysis of the Iran negotiations is not an analysis at all, but an impulse."

Despite concessions most observers thought Tehran would never make, the right hates this deal because they hate all deals. Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his U.S. supporters, such as the forever wrong William Kristol, describe Iran's leaders as the new fuhrer. The apocalyptic enemy before that was the Tehran regime's bitter enemy, Saddam Hussein.

Anyway, we all know how invading Iraq worked out.

Iran is five times Iraq's size, has three times its population and extremely forbidding terrain.

No matter. To the Permanent War Caucus, it's always 1938 and blitzkrieg is eternally threatened. Netanyahu has been predicting Iran's imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons for almost 20 years now — although the Wile E. Coyote bomb cartoon is a relatively recent touch.

Israel, of course, has a nuclear arsenal of its own.

But what really makes the Hitler/Chamberlain comparison so foolish isn't simply that it's a cliche. It's that it completely misrepresents the power balance between the U.S., its allies Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, and militarily weak, politically and strategically isolated Iran.

In 1938, Nazi Germany had the strongest military in the world. (Indeed, there's a revisionist school that holds Neville Chamberlain was wise to postpone an inevitable war while Britain re-armed.)

Shiite Iran, by contrast, can scarcely project power much beyond its borders, and is threatened by traditional enemies on all sides. Examine a map of the Middle East. Tehran is almost 1,000 miles from Jerusalem. Ethnically and linguistically distinct, the Persians are surrounded by hostile Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, which repress their own Shiite minorities and are fanatically opposed to the ayatollahs.

Almost unknown in this country, U.S. client Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion of Iran — complete with nerve gas attacks on the Persians and Kurds — remains a bitter memory. ISIS terrorists are massacring Shiites by the thousands in Iraq and Syria. For that matter, check out the U.S. military bases ringing the Persian Gulf, along with omnipresent, nuclear-armed aircraft carriers and submarines.

One needn't have a particle of sympathy for Iran's odious theocratic government to see that we've got them totally outgunned and surrounded. Economic sanctions engineered by the Obama administration have really hurt. So yes, if they thought they could trust us, it would be very much in Tehran's interest to make a deal and stick to it — putting the nuclear temptation aside in favor of what amounts to anti-invasion insurance.

But can we trust them?

Obama explained his thinking to the New York Times' Thomas Friedman: "We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that's the thing ... people don't seem to understand."

"[W]ith respect to Iran ... a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran's defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us. You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities."

If you're really strong, in other words, act strong.

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