fresh voices from the front lines of change







Quiz time: Which president said this?

I think that some of the people who are objecting the most and just refusing even to accede to the idea of ever getting any understanding, whether they realize it or not, those people, basically, down in their deepest thoughts, have accepted that war is inevitable … Well, I think as long as you’ve got a chance to strive for peace, you strive for peace.

President Barack Obama about the Iran deal?

Nope. Ronald Reagan, throwing shade to the right wing after he forged the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev, the first treaty to reduce nuclear arms.

Though don’t blame yourself for being confused. Obama was channeling Reagan last week when he said:

What I haven’t heard is, what is your preferred alternative? … There really are only two alternatives here: Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation, or it’s resolved through force, through war … If the alternative is that we should bring Iran to heel through military force, then those critics should say so.

Republicans have criticized Obama, and his secretary of state John Kerry, because he didn’t walk out on the Iran talks the way Reagan walked out on Gorbachev at the ill-fated Reykjavik summit. But as I detailed in this Real Clear Politics piece, Reykjavik is the beginning of the story, not the end.

Yes, Reagan walked out because he wouldn’t accept Gorbachev’s demands that he relegate his space-based missile defense scheme known as the Strategic Defense Initiative to laboratory research for 10 years. But that whole meeting was, as The Washington Post put it at the time, a “bizarre” amateurish spectacle, with unprepared American negotiators reacting haphazardly to Soviet concessions by tossing off heady ideas that had not been vetted internally or with allies. (At one point Reagan blurted out that he was willing to eliminate all nuclear weapons, and Gorbachev agreed. But when our European allies heard about it, they panicked that Reagan was interested in throwing away their security blanket.)

Reagan’s walkout did not put the Soviets in their place. It merely brought both parties back to reality. Gorbachev and his aides concluded that Reagan’s “Star Wars” dream was a waste of money (something Gorbachev would later tell Reagan to his face), and wasn’t worth worrying about. Four months after Reykjavik, Gorbachev proposed the elimination of mid-range nuclear weapons, and Reagan quickly agreed.

At the time, conservatives did not praise Reagan for saving SDI. (And in hindsight, knowing that SDI never came to fruition, it seems a silly thing to have made non-negotiable.) Instead, conservatives were mad that Reagan traded away missiles in Europe that could reach Moscow in minutes, and were generally unnerved by the rapprochement with the USSR.

So Reagan called them out as hell-bent on war, put Republicans in their place, and got the treaty ratified.

Obama may not have stormed out of a meeting, but Iran talks were put on ice for 15 months during his first term, when he and our allies were unimpressed with what Iran was offering. Unlike Reykjavik, Obama worked with our allies throughout the negotiation process. Then pressure on Iran was intensified with sanctions.

Similar to how the Soviets experienced a power shift with the rise of Gorbachev, Iran presented a new face with the presidential election of Hassan Rouhani. Suddenly, the prospects for intrusive inspections and the disabling of key parts of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure became more realistic and worth negotiating in person.

What Reykjavik accomplished was getting the leaders of the world’s superpowers in the same room and share that they both actually wanted to reduce, if not eliminate, nuclear weapons. Despite the acrimonious end, Reagan and Gorbachev learned it was worth talking to the other. The elements of common ground were put on the table, and set the stage for an eventual agreement.

Obama is walking in Reagan’s path.

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