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No Deal

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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As we go to press, the Obama administration seems to be hurtling towards a bad deal with Iran. The administration will claim the agreement freezes and indeed sets back the Iranian nuclear program. But even the New York Times acknowledges that “only some elements are frozen, and rollbacks in the initial agreement are relatively minor” and can be easily reversed. Furthermore, the “deal” would mean the United States would retreat from its previous clear red line—one embodied in repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions—of requiring that Iran stop enrichment. It would allow Iran to move ever closer to nuclear weapons while getting significant sanctions relief. Some deal! In truth, it’s not a deal in the usual meaning of the term. It’s an accommodation. It’s a way for the Obama administration to avoid confronting Iran, and to buy time to acclimate the world to accepting a nuclear Iran.

Lincoln Side by Side

What will the Obama administration’s leading lights say when this becomes obvious? When he sees his grand diplomatic achievement crumbling around him, will Secretary of State John Kerry join his counterpart, Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in sighing and exclaiming with pithy eloquence, “Uh-oh”? Will President Barack Obama offer the same apology to the Israelis that he has to Americans who held insurance policies they liked: “I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me”? As the implementation of the Iran agreement goes the way of the implementation of Obamacare, will his reaction be to say, “We’re going to have to, obviously, re-market and re-brand”?

The president and his colleagues will presumably say these sorts of things. But of course it will be too late. Congress can legislate to try to make up for the failure of Obama’s assurances about health insurance, and to try to help Americans get their old policies back. But Congress won’t be able to legislate to undo a nuclear Iran. The American people can ignore Obama’s efforts to re-market and re-brand Obamacare, and instead insist on its repeal. But the American people won’t be able to repeal Iran’s nuclear weapons once Iran has them.

That’s why serious people, in Congress and outside, will do their utmost to expose and scuttle Obama’s bad Iran deal. They can expect to be smeared by the Obama administration as reckless warmongers and slandered by Obama’s media epigones as tools of the Israel lobby. One trusts at least some members of Congress and some political leaders are made of stern enough stuff to resist the attempted intimidation.

But one can’t be optimistic about their chances for success in scuttling the deal. And one can’t be optimistic that the Obama administration will reverse course at the eleventh hour. Which means the last, best hope for stopping the Iranian regime from having nuclear weapons may well lie in a deus ex machina (if one may be permitted to use a pagan phrase for a Jewish state). It is Israel, not the great American superpower, that may well have to act to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And so the democratically elected leader of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will have to weigh his choices, with the burden of history on his mind and the judgment of future generations in his thoughts.

Last week was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Many commentators mentioned the irony of Lincoln’s saying that his brief remarks would soon be forgotten. There was indeed irony, an intended irony, in the statement. But Lincoln’s tribute to those who fought, and his elevation of their deeds above his speech, isn’t ironic:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be here dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg will be studied as long as people care about the American experiment in self-government, or about political greatness. But Lincoln knew as well as anyone that speech has to be supported by deeds. It was the soldiers’ hard-won victory in the battle of Gettysburg that was the precondition for Lincoln’s remarks, and for America’s “new birth of freedom.” So Lincoln was telling the plain but deep truth when he emphasized, and gave priority to, “what they did here.” In politics, deeds matter. Speech, even the most eloquent and thoughtful speech, is not enough. 

Benjamin Netanyahu understands this. Jewish history, and not just Jewish history, teaches this lesson. Netanyahu may well judge that he has to act to stop the Iranian regime from getting nuclear weapons. If he does, then Israel will fight. And Israel will be right.

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