In 2016, hawks will pay political price for reckless foreign policy
By Ben Shnider
With the 2016 elections about to kick into full swing, pundits expect national security questions to play a more significant role than at any time since the invasion of Iraq. Voters are anxious to learn candidates’ plans for safeguarding the United States and our allies in an unpredictable global context.
Presidential and Congressional candidates on the far right have clearly taken notice. They’re seizing on this anxiety to advocate for increased military engagement in the Middle East, raising the rhetorical stakes with calls for “carpet bombing” and Islamophobic fearmongering.
Hawks believe that they can use these tactics to scare voters and undermine more responsible candidates. But there’s good reason to believe their saber rattling will backfire this time around.
The right-wingers are drawing on an antiquated political playbook that says those who take a diplomacy-first approach to Middle East conflict resolution will be penalized for being naïve, while advocates of costly military interventions won’t pay a political price for their recklessness.
The new reality is very different. Voters have yet to forget the disastrous consequences of the Iraq invasion and are hungry for alternatives to war – alternatives like the brand of hard-nosed diplomacy that produced the recent nuclear agreement with Iran.
By neutralizing Iran’s dangerous nuclear program, that agreement has demonstrated that complicated and dangerous conflicts with other nations can be settled through tough diplomacy and non-military means. The deal survived in Congress despite the opposition of some of the most powerful lobbies and think tanks in Washington – groups that were once viewed as dominant in our national foreign policy debates.
A few months have passed since that vote, and it’s now clear that the deal is already making the United States and Israel safer. Iran has removed and filled the core of its plutonium reactor in Arak with cement and shipped 97 percent of its enriched uranium out of the country. Iran is still very far from a friend to the U.S. – but for the first time in years, it lacks the materials needed to make even a single nuclear weapon. And all of this has been accomplished without firing a single shot.
Now the 2016 election will test whether support for such a sensible and effective policy is a political asset or liability to its advocates. Will those candidates who pledge to tear up the Iran deal, and carpet bomb Middle Eastern countries until we learn if “sand can glow in the dark” win the debate in 2016? Or will advocates of the measured, diplomacy-first approach to foreign policy embodied by the Iran deal emerge victorious in November?
Supporters of American leadership through pragmatic diplomacy should welcome this debate. At J Street, we’re going to seize the moment and go on the offense.
On the campaign trail, candidates who denounced and sought to obstruct this deal should have to explain why they were so opposed to peacefully yet decisively de-fanging Iran’s nuclear program. Politicians like Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) should be taken to task for their reckless foreign policy and retrograde worldview. Kirk repeatedly tried to undermine the negotiations by imposing new sanctions, while shamefully and absurdly accusing the president of wanting to “get nukes to Iran.” Both Kirk and Johnson signed Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) deplorable letter to the ayatollah undermining the administration’s Iran diplomacy. That kind of irresponsible grandstanding embarrassed our country and jeopardized our security.
Candidates must learn that undermining our alliances and choosing war as our foreign policy of first resort will cost them at the polls in November. Unseating hawks like Kirk and Johnson will be a game-changer in rewriting Washington’s political calculus. By proving that principled diplomacy is good politics in addition to good policy, we can make 2016 the election year that Washington was empowered – once and for all – to pursue smart, tough diplomacy without the fear of political retribution.
Shnider is the National Political director for J Street, the pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group.