When the British surrendered at Yorktown almost 234 years ago, Lord Cornwallis’s band played a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.” With news of the U.S. nuclear agreement with Iran some 34 years after Iran released the American embassy hostages, the world once again feels as though it has turned upside down.
America’s traditional Middle East allies are in shock watching their strongest Western ally, the United States, seek a rapprochement with their greatest regional enemy, Iran. Mortal enemies for decades, Sunni Arab states and the Israelis now are not-so-secretly working more closely to respond to the threat that the burgeoning, empowered Iranian hegemon poses. Bewildered Americans must wonder why the United States is seeking to reach a deal with an Iranian regime that four days before signing the deal hosted its annual “Death to America, Death to Israel” parade in the streets of Tehran.
This dizzying series of events and extraordinary reversal of U.S. foreign policy raises an obvious question: How did we get here? What was the source of the U.S. decision to reverse decades of foreign policy seemingly in the blink of an eye and without an obvious triggering event? While no one event or occurrence explains the United States’ new policy toward Iran, this policy shift has been many years in the making. And its source is a familiar one: the Iraq War.
How France and Germany Influenced the Iran Deal
Since 2003, the Democratic Party has elevated multilateralism and diplomacy as the sine qua non of any legitimate action on the international stage. Multilateralism, diplomacy, talking to enemies—these have practically become staples of Democratic Party policy. While the post-Vietnam Democratic Party has often been skeptical of the use of American force, the debate over the Iraq War exponentially increased the importance of diplomacy and multilateral actions in Democratic rhetoric and candidate platforms.
Democrats’ obsession with multilateralism and diplomacy has its roots in the opposition of France and Germany (and, to a lesser degree, Russia and China) to the Iraq War in the fall of 2002 and the winter of 2003. It was primarily public hostility and the outspoken, impassioned opposition of France and Germany to the Iraq War that fueled the contention that the United States was somehow “going it alone” in Iraq and alienating allies in the process.
France’s and Germany’s passionate opposition to the war was instrumental in defeating United Nations resolutions that would have authorized the use of force to compel Iraq’s compliance with prior U.N. resolutions. France and Germany also worked to galvanize world opinion against the war. The United States’ very public failure to obtain the U.N.’s imprimatur in the face of French and German opposition further fueled the fire of the argument that it was acting unilaterally.
Although the outspoken French and German opposition to the war gave the appearance that the world was not on the U.S. side, and the United States was losing friends and allies by invading Iraq, European nations actually were divided on the question and by no means had a common position on the war.
Eight European countries wrote the public “Letter of Eight” in January 2003, expressing support for the U.S. position on Iraq and opposition to France and Germany’s effort to develop a common European antiwar position. The letter was signed by the leaders of Spain, Portugal, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Denmark. (The Czech Republic’s signatory was Vaclav Havel.) On February 5, 2003, a group of countries known as the Vilnius 10 released a similar letter expressing support for the U.S.’s stance on Iraq. The Vilnius 10 comprised Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Despite these European divisions, because of the outspoken French and German opposition, the pernicious myth that the United States had alienated its allies and acted unilaterally in Iraq took hold in the U.S. Almost immediately in the wake of the U.N. votes on Iraq, and carrying forward into the 2004 presidential campaign, the Democratic Party became deeply invested in the myth that the United States had unilaterally invaded Iraq, in the process squandering the world’s post-9/11 sympathy toward the United States.
From France and Germany to the Democratic Party
Future presidential candidate Howard Dean said in a speech at Drake University on February 17, 2003 that “reckless bluster with our allies over Iraq has caused what could be lasting friction in important relationships and has injured our standing in the world community.” In that same speech, Dean said, “yet, 18 months [after the September 11 attacks], a lot of that international support is gone. Surveys tell us that majorities in Europe see the United States as a major threat to world peace. Surveys tell us that regard for the United States has declined in every country and on every continent. In countries that have long been our allies, leaders are getting elected because of the fervor of their anti-America message.” In a speech on May 26, 2004, former Vice President Al Gore said President Bush “decided not to honor the Geneva Convention. Just as he would not honor the United Nations, international treaties, the opinions of our allies, the role of Congress and the courts, or what Jefferson described as ‘a decent respect for the opinion of mankind.’”
The myth that the United States had invaded Iraq unilaterally was a powerful one, and came to define Democratic Party voters in 2004. A Pew survey found that 78 percent of 2004 Dean primary voters believed that the U.S. should strongly take into account the interests of its allies. Dean supporters far outpaced other voters in this belief. Pew found that even among Democrats, only 49 percent held this view, while 38 percent believed U.S. foreign policy should focus mainly on U.S. interests.
Moreover, a whopping 96 percent of Dean voters said they believed “effective diplomacy” rather than “military strength” was “the best way to ensure peace.” Dean enjoyed great success in the early portion of the 2004 primary season, so much so that candidates that previously had supported the war eventually aligned themselves with the antiwar camp.
The myth of Bush administration unilateralism and diplomatic failure provided another benefit to Democratic candidates, such as John Kerry and John Edwards, who as senators had voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. It provided a caveat for their authorization vote. They could tell their supporters, “Yes, we voted to authorize force, but President Bush’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to our allies was not what we voted for.” For that explanation to work, however, the Democratic Party had to wed itself to the notion that military action not supported by a multilateral coalition and blessed by the United Nations was effectively illegitimate.
From Politics to Policy
By the time of the 2004 Democratic convention, the Bush administration’s diplomatic ineptitude, its loss of allies, and its destruction of the world’s view of America was an article of faith within the Democratic Party. The second major section of the 2004 Democratic platform, immediately following the Preamble, was titled “A Strong, Respected America.” It represented the morphing of a Democratic talking point—that the Bush administration’s supposed unilateralism ruined America’s standing with its allies and with the world—into a fundamental pillar of Democratic foreign policy.
The platform said:
But the Bush Administration has walked away from more than a hundred years of American leadership in the world to embrace a new – and dangerously ineffective – disregard for the world.
They rush to force before exhausting diplomacy. They bully rather than persuade. They act alone when they could assemble a team. They hope for the best when they should prepare for the worst. Time and again, this Administration confuses leadership with going it alone and engagement with compromise of principle. They do not understand that real leadership means standing by your principles and rallying others to join you.
John Kerry, John Edwards and the Democratic Party believe in a better, stronger America – an America that is respected, not just feared, and an America that listens and leads…
We believe in an America that people around the world admire, because they know we cherish not just our freedom, but theirs. Not just our democracy, but their hope for it. Not just our peace and security, but the world’s. We believe in an America that cherishes freedom, safeguards our people, forges alliances, and commands respect. That is the America we are going to build.
Kerry famously enunciated a “global test” for legitimizing U.S. military action in a 2004 debate with President Bush. Although it was viewed as a gaffe at the time, Kerry later explained his “global test” by saying “that America is stronger when we are leading global alliances and when we are leading the world, and that’s how we are going to do it.” The emphasis on the importance of alliances, multilateralism, and diplomacy—all of this was enshrined in Democratic Party foreign policy in 2004 in response to the opposition to the Iraq War, to discredit the Bush administration. Thus did a Democratic line of attack become a bedrock guiding principle of Democratic foreign policy.
Despite Kerry’s loss in 2004, the Bush administration’s supposedly incompetent diplomacy and “cowboy” instincts remained one of the Democrats’ most common criticisms of the Bush administration. To maintain this criticism through the second Bush term, Democrats continued to embrace the extreme alternative—that diplomacy, multilateralism, and negotiations, anywhere, at any time, and with anyone, ally or enemy, was the only legitimate way to engage in foreign affairs and to pursue U.S. national security interests.
By 2008, the Democrats had married themselves to the idea that diplomacy and multilateralism were absolute goods in and of themselves, and that the Democratic Party was far superior in the ways of diplomacy.
Barack Obama Picks Up the Multilateralism Torch
Barack Obama’s unflinching belief in diplomacy came through in various points of the 2008 campaign. In 2007, he told The New York Times he would engage in “aggressive personal diplomacy with Iran.” In a primary debate, when asked if he would sit down to negotiate with Cuba, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea without preconditions, he stated, “I would.” His supporters pointed to this statement as a break from and repudiation of the Bush-era Axis of Evil chest-thumping.
While Hillary Clinton, his main opponent for the Democratic nomination, said Obama’s position was “naïve,” Obama’s success in the primaries running as the antiwar candidate demonstrated that the Democratic Party was with him on this issue. In July 2008, as a presidential candidate, Obama gave a speech on the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. In it, he stated:
This must be the moment when we answer the call of history. For eight years, we have paid the price for a foreign policy that lectures without listening; that divides us from one another – and from the world – instead of calling us to a common purpose; that focuses on our tactics in fighting a war without end in Iraq instead of forging a new strategy to face down the true threats that we face. We cannot afford four more years of a strategy that is out of balance and out of step with this defining moment.
By 2008, Democrats’ virtual obsession with multilateralism and diplomacy for their own sake is reflected in this statement from the 2008 Democratic platform on the need to be more multilateral in our dealings with the world:
To renew American leadership in the world, we will rebuild the alliances, partnerships, and institutions necessary to confront common threats and enhance common security. Needed reform of these alliances and institutions will not come by bullying other countries to ratify American demands. It will come when we convince other governments and peoples that they too have a stake in effective partnerships. It is only leadership if others join America in working toward our common security.
Too often, in recent years, we have sent the opposite signal to our international partners. In the case of Europe, we dismissed European reservations about the wisdom and necessity of the Iraq war and their concerns about climate change. In Asia, we belittled South Korean efforts to improve relations with the North. In Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, we failed to address concerns about immigration and equity and economic growth. In Africa, we have allowed genocide to persist for over five years in Darfur and have not done nearly enough to answer the United Nation’s call for more support to stop the killing. Under Barack Obama, we will rebuild our ties to our allies in Europe and Asia and strengthen our partnerships throughout the Americas and Africa.
This demonstrates, in a nutshell, just how much the international opposition to the Iraq War came to define the Democrats’ view of the appropriate U.S. approach to foreign affairs.
While Democrats talked of “European reservations” to the Iraq War, those reservations belonged primarily to France and Germany; as noted previously, many European countries supported the war, and many even supplied troops. All the talk of “renewing” and “rebuilding” alliances was an obvious reference to the Democrats’ by now sacrosanct belief that the Bush administration’s “rush to war” destroyed alliances and U.S. standing in the world and represented a threat to U.S. national security.
The ‘World Community’ Helped Destabilize Iraq
Regarding Iraq, the 2008 Democratic platform called for “launching a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic surge to help broker a lasting political settlement in Iraq, which is the only path to a sustainable peace.” Why a regional and international diplomatic surge was “the only path to a sustainable peace,” the platform did not explain.
In fact, the Democrats’ platform begged the question: why would an international diplomatic surge be “the only path to a sustainable peace”? Many regional actors were directly responsible for the violence in Iraq. Iran provided support to Shi’a militias, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and other Iraqi insurgents. Iran also was directly responsible for the increased lethality of improvised explosive devices targeting U.S. troops, and Iranian intelligence and Qods Force personnel were active in Iraq.
Syria provided free passage to foreign fighters entering Iraq to join the anti-U.S. insurgency. Turkey cast a wary eye towards the Kurds in northern Iraq, concerned about the possibility of their declaring independence. The idea that an international conference including regional actors such as Iran, Syria, and Turkey would result in a pacified, friendly Iraq that could serve as a model for the Arab world was fanciful. Iran, Syria, and Turkey all had interests in Iraq, but their interests diametrically were opposed to those of the United States. Democrats never addressed this question in their platform; by 2008, multilateralism had become a reflexive, sacrosanct totem of the Democratic Party that required no defense and no explanation.
Applying ‘the Global Test’ to Iran
Which brings us to Iran. The 2008 Democratic platform regarding Iran incorporates the supposed lessons on the importance of multilateralism and diplomacy in responding to the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program. The 2008 Democratic platform stated that the effort to end the Iranian nuclear threat would “start with tougher sanctions and aggressive, principled, and direct high-level diplomacy, without preconditions. We will pursue this strengthened diplomacy alongside our European allies, and with no illusions about the Iranian regime.”
The platform went on: “[b]y going the extra diplomatic mile, while keeping all options on the table, we make it more likely the rest of the world will stand with us to increase pressure on Iran, if diplomacy is failing.” In 2004, the “global test” was a gaffe; by 2008, the Democrats had proudly elevated it to policy by needing to ensure “the world stood with us” before we considered increasing pressure, and possibly military action, against Iran.
Once again, the Democrats’ platform was long on shibboleths about diplomacy and multilateralism and supposed lessons from Iraq, but short on specifics. What did the Democratic platform mean by “aggressive” and “principled” diplomacy? What did it mean to “go the extra diplomatic mile”? How would one even decide at what point the United States had gone the “extra diplomatic mile” such that those other “options on the table” could be considered?
How would the United States assure itself that “the rest of the world” would define “the extra diplomatic mile” in the same way, such that “the world would stand with us” if diplomacy was failing? Why wouldn’t one or two countries opposed to military action against Iran—say, Russia and China, or France and Germany again—argue that the United States hadn’t yet gone the “extra diplomatic mile,” so they could not support increased sanctions or military action against Iran? The platform offered no answers to these questions. The platform belies a belief in diplomacy, alliances, and multilateralism for their own sakes, and as a talking point to browbeat the opposition, rather than a means to an end.
Anything Bush Did, We’ll Do the Opposite
Even after Obama and Democrats prevailed in the 2008 elections, the Democrats’ near-obsession with diplomacy, multilateral action, and negotiation continued unabated, demonstrating just how far the diplomacy and multilateralism arguments had moved from being just a line of attack against the Bush administration. From the first, the Obama administration sought to distinguish its foreign policy at every turn from its conception of the Bush administration’s failed diplomacy. The president-elect website for the Obama administration included the following foreign policy imperatives:
Renew our Alliances: Obama and Biden will rebuild our alliances to meet the common challenges of the 21st century. America is strongest when we act alongside strong partners. Now is the time for a new era of international cooperation that strengthens old partnerships and builds new ones to confront the common challenges of the 21st century — terrorism and nuclear weapons; climate change and poverty; genocide and disease.
Talk to our Foes and Friends: Obama and Biden will pursue tough, direct diplomacy without preconditions with all nations, friend and foe. They will do the careful preparation necessary, but will signal that America is ready to come to the table and is willing to lead. And if America is willing to come to the table, the world will be more willing to rally behind American leadership to deal with challenges like confronting terrorism and Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs.
These policies clearly were designed to rebuke the Bush administration’s supposed unwillingness to pursue diplomacy with anyone, including rogue states and enemies.
In her confirmation hearings for secretary of State, Clinton further emphasized the Democrats’ rebuke of the supposed Bush unilateralism. She testified that “we must use what has been called ‘smart power,’ the full range of tools at our disposal. With ‘smart power,’ diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy.” Shortly after taking office, Clinton gave the Russian Foreign Minister a “reset” button, meant to symbolize a new era of diplomacy between the United States and Russia and a break from the relationship with the Bush administration.
Obama himself opened his administration by saying in his inaugural address that the United States would respond with an outstretched hand to hostile countries that unclenched their fists. He chose to make his first public interview with the al-Arabiya network, telling his interviewer that “my job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.” He also told al-Arabiya that “that same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that.”
Describing his approach, he told the Muslim world, “I think you’ll see someone who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure I’m speaking to them, as well.” He reminded his audience that he had lived in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, as a child. And Obama was particularly concerned about Iran. In that first interview with al-Arabiya, he said “it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues of support.”
Obama’s Cairo speech represented an attempt to show the Arab and Muslim world that the “cowboy” Bush was no longer around, and that U.S. foreign policy was under new management. The idea that Obama would listen and respect world opinion was meant to distinguish his foreign policy from Bush’s supposedly disrespectful, bullying foreign policy.
Describing U.S. involvement in Iraq in the speech, Obama said, “[a]lthough I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible. Indeed, we can recall the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said: ‘I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.’” He also reiterated the approach to Iran that he enunciated in his campaign: “There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect.”
Let’s All Sing Kumbaya, and Things Will Improve
As if to add an exclamation point to the Democrats’ worship of multilateralism, upon concluding his agreement with Iran, Obama said: “History shows that America must lead, not just with our might, but with our principles. It shows we are stronger, not when we are alone, but when we bring the world together. Today’s announcement marks one more chapter in this pursuit of a safer and more helpful, more hopeful world.”
The administration’s argument that the only alternative to the Iran deal is war alludes to the idea that opponents of the deal support a rush to war against Iran in the same way that Iraq War supporters “rushed to war” against Iraq without giving diplomacy a chance. In the current administration’s defenses of the Iran nuclear deal, one can hear echoes of the pre-Iraq War arguments that the Bush administration failed to let diplomacy run its course before going to war. It could not be clearer: multilateralism and diplomacy matter above all, more than the substance of any agreement. Acting in a way that “brings the world together” is the alpha and omega of Democratic foreign policy.
Taken together, once in power, Obama and Democrats went to work implementing what they perceived to be the un-Bush foreign policy. It was the foreign policy of diplomacy and multilateralism—first, last, always, and only—that Democrats had been promoting non-stop since 2003. The Iran nuclear agreement is the apotheosis of this belief in diplomacy above all.
This Foreign-Policy Approach Rests on Falsehoods
What is perhaps most disheartening in all of this is the fact that the notion that the Bush administration acted unilaterally in Iraq, ignoring the opinions of allies and other countries, the very basis of Democratic foreign policy, is simply and demonstrably false.
Thirty-seven countries supplied 150,000 troops from the initial invasion through July 2009. This “coalition of the willing” included close allies such as the United Kingdom, Spain, and Australia. Poland also joined the coalition, with Polish commandos participating in the fight to take Baghdad. But the coalition also included many other allies not ordinarily thought of as U.S. military partners. Twenty countries deployed troops to Iraq after May 2003: Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Honduras, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, the Philippines, Romania, Slovakia, and Thailand.
Worse, the idea that the United States alienated its allies and acted unilaterally in Iraq was based primarily on France and Germany’s opposition to the Iraq War. Those who viewed French opposition as evidence that the United States was alienating allies and ruining its standing in the world neglected to consider or acknowledge the many parochial reasons the French and Germans had for opposing the Iraq War.
The Iraq War presented an opportunity to cement France’s vision of a multipolar world and France’s position at the head of a European foreign policy that represented an alternative—and frequently outright opposition—to the United States, including limiting U.S. freedom of action in international venues such as the U.N. France had close economic relations with Iraq dating back to the 1970s and had numerous oil interests in Iraq as of 2002. France also believed it might be in line for additional oil concessions in Iraq should the U.N. sanctions regime be weakened.
In addition, the French government in 2002 was led by the often-unpopular Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Both men found that playing to anti-American crowds enhanced their popularity. As one reporter wrote in February 2003, “a year into his second presidential term, the conservative Gaullist president is enjoying soaring popularity at home, which has eluded him for much of his political career.” Chirac even made the short list for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
Similarly, Gerhard Schroeder, the German chancellor in 2002, made opposing the United States and the Iraq invasion a central element of his August-September 2002 re-election campaign. Heading into the election, Schroeder was deeply unpopular because of the German economy, and was considered likely to lose his reelection bid. His strident, unequivocal opposition to the Iraq War resurrected his campaign and was a major factor in his winning reelection. After winning, he maintained his opposition and joined France and others in opposing U.N. resolutions authorizing the use of force against Iraq.
The fact that the Iraq War appeared to divide countries and lose allies for the United States can be traced to the outspoken opposition of France and Germany. And much of the French and German opposition to the Iraq War can be traced to the political ambitions and popularity-seeking of those countries’ political leadership, including Chirac, de Villepin, and Schroeder. So a fundamental plank of current Democratic foreign policy thinking ultimately can be traced back to the craven political needs of unpopular French and German politicians.
The Iraq War Isn’t the Only Factor, Of Course
Certainly the Democrats’ adoption of “diplomacy first, last, always, and only” was not the only factor that led to the Iran agreement. One additional factor likely was the desire for a legacy and a world-historical achievement on the part of President Obama and his secretary of State, John Kerry.
Another element may have been Obama’s education. He came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when many in the academic world saw the United States as having done more harm than good in the Middle East and elsewhere—the “blame America first” crowd, as U.N. Ambassador (and Democrat) Jeane Kirkpatrick famously called them in 1984.
An additional ingredient was Obama’s conception of himself as uniquely positioned, by virtue of his background and familial ties to Islam, to serve as a bridge between the Western and Islamic worlds. In his al-Arabiya interview, Obama said, “My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.” In his Cairo speech, he said:
There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.
Part of this conviction is rooted in my own experience. I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.
All of these factors likely played a role in bringing the United States to the nuclear agreement with Iran. However, given the obsession with multilateralism and diplomacy within the Democratic Party that preceded Obama’s election, the other factors that entered the scene with Obama in 2008 were pushing against an open door on negotiating with Iran. In 2008, the Democratic Party was ready to embrace a candidate that believed in multilateralism and diplomacy above all and in negotiations with rogue states. The man met the moment, and the confluence of the Democratic Party’s decade-long diplomacy obsession and Obama’s own views led the United States to the table with Iran.
A partner at a law firm I worked at early in my career once told me that he knew he was ready to go to trial when he started to believe his own [baloney]. It may be similarly fair to say that Obama administration officials entered office in 2009 believing all of their talking points about Bush’s unilateralism, his lack of respect for the opinions of allies and other countries, and how these factors damaged America’s standing in the world and made it less safe.
The Iran agreement, the result of diplomatic outreach to a sworn enemy of the United States by a coalition of European powers, Russia, and China, is the perfect reflection of the Democrats’ anti-Bush foreign policy. A coalition of countries came together, engaged with a rogue state that was in violation of a host of U.N. resolutions and international treaties, and supposedly avoided a war by reaching a diplomatic agreement. The contents of the agreement mattered far less than the fact of it. Whether the world is safer today or not mattered less than the Obama administration’s demonstration of diplomacy first, last, always, and only.
That may be the United States’ current guiding principle in foreign affairs; query whether it is the guiding principle of Iran. The world may yet be turned upside down again.