Friedman and Bruni

In “Backing Up Our Wager With Iran” TMOW says we can do things to increase the odds that our bet against Iran getting a bomb pays off.  Mr. Bruni has a question in “To Trump or Not to Trump” — as Donald Trump becomes bigger, we become smaller. How should we size him up?  Here’s TMOW:

From the minute Iran detected that the U.S. was unwilling to use its overwhelming military force to curtail Tehran’s nuclear program — and that dates back to the George W. Bush administration, which would neither accept Iran’s right to a nuclear fuel cycle nor structure a military or diplomatic option to stop it — no perfect deal overwhelmingly favorable to America and its allies was ever going to emerge from negotiations with Iran. The balance of power became too equal.

But there are degrees of imperfect, and the diplomatic option structured by the Obama team — if properly implemented and augmented by muscular diplomacy — serves core American interests better than any options I hear coming from the deal’s critics: It prevents Iran from producing the fissile material to break out with a nuclear weapon for 15 years and creates a context that could empower the more pragmatic forces inside Iran over time — at the price of constraining, but not eliminating, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and sanctions relief that will strengthen Tehran as a regional power.

Supporting this deal doesn’t make you Neville Chamberlain; opposing it doesn’t make you Dr. Strangelove. Both sides have legitimate arguments. But having studied them, I believe America’s interests are best served now by focusing on how to get the best out of this deal and cushion the worst, rather than scuttling it. That would be a mistake that would isolate us, not Iran, and limit our choices to going to war or tolerating an Iran much closer to nuclear breakout, without any observers or curbs on the ground, and with crumbling sanctions.

“The nuclear agreement is a deal, not a grand bargain,” argued the Wilson Center’s Robert Litwak, author of “Iran’s Nuclear Chess.” “Obama and Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei are each making a tacit bet. Obama is defending the deal in transactional terms (that it addresses a discrete urgent challenge), but betting that it will empower Iran’s moderate faction and put the country on a more favorable societal trajectory. Khamenei is making the opposite bet — that the regime can benefit from the transactional nature of the agreement (sanctions relief) and forestall the deal’s potentially transformational implications to preserve Iran’s revolutionary deep state.”

We can, though, do things to increase the odds that the bet goes our way: 1. Don’t let this deal become the Obamacare of arms control, where all the energy goes into the negotiation but then the implementing tools — in this case the verification technologies — don’t work. President Obama should appoint a respected military figure to oversee every aspect of implementing this deal.

2. Congress should pass a resolution authorizing this and future presidents to use force to prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear weapons state. Iran must know now that the U.S. president is authorized to destroy — without warning or negotiation — any attempt by Tehran to build a bomb.

3. Focus on the Iranian people. The celebrations of this deal in Iran tell us that “the Iranian people want to be South Korea, not North Korea,” notesKarim Sadjadpour, Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment. We should reach out to them in every way — visas, exchanges and scholarships — to strengthen their voices. Visiting Iran taught me that Iranians have had enough Islamic fundamentalism to know they want less of it and they’ve had enough democracy to know they want more of it. (Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guards know this well, which is why they are still trying to persuade Iran’s supreme leader to reject this deal and its opening to the world.)

4. Avoid a black-and-white view of the Middle East. The idea that Iran is everywhere our enemy and the Sunni Arabs our allies is a mistake. Saudi Arabia’s leadership has been a steadfast U.S. ally in the Cold War; many Saudis are pro-American. But the Saudi leadership’s ruling bargain is toxic: It says to the Saudi people that the al-Saud tribe gets to rule and in return the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment gets billions of dollars to transform the face of Sunni Islam from an open and modernizing faith to a puritanical, anti-women, anti-Shiite, anti-pluralistic one. The Saudis have lost control of this puritanical-Salafist transformation of Islam, and it has mutated into the ideology that inspired the 9/11 hijackers — 15 of 19 of whom were Saudis — and the Islamic State.

Iran aided the U.S. in toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and, at the same time, Tehran, and its cat’s paw, Hezbollah, have propped up the Syrian regime while it has perpetrated a genocide against its own people, mostly Syrian Sunnis. We need to confront Iran’s regional behavior when it contradicts our interests, but align with it when it comports with our interests. We want to balance the autocratic Sunnis and Shiites, not promote either. Neither share our values.

Finally, when it comes to the Middle East broadly, we need to contain, amplify and innovate: Contain the most aggressive forces there, amplify any leaders or people building decency there, and innovate on energy like crazy to keep prices low, reduce oil money to bad actors and reduce our exposure to a region that is going to be in turmoil for a long, long, long time.

Gee, Tommy — can the class think of anything that might have exacerbated that turmoil?  Something that happened during the last administration?  A show of hands, please…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Bob Kerrey served in the Senate with John McCain, is also a Vietnam veteran and has run for president, so he has been asked incessantly over recent days to appear on television and weigh in on Donald Trump’s vile besmirching of McCain’s military record.

He accepted only one of those invitations, from a friend. Otherwise he mostly stayed mum, lest he abet Trump’s ultimate goal, which is to turn his name into a news media mantra: Trump, Trump, Trump.

But on the phone on Tuesday, Kerrey’s frustration — no, let’s call it disgust — boiled over, and he, too, talked about Trump, Trump, Trump. I recount our conversation because I think Kerrey speaks for most Americans and because his comments capture what a conundrum many of us face.

If we discuss Trump, as I’ve done in several columns, we reward his bad and transcendently self-serving behavior, no matter how negative our assessments of him or how many larger truths we engage.

If we don’t discuss him, we ignore something real, in a fashion that’s irresponsible.

By something real, I mean the fact that Trump has measurable support, at least for now. In a nationwide ABC News/Washington Post poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents that was released Monday, he was in the lead for the party’s presidential nomination, the favorite of 24 percent of respondents. The next closest contenders were Scott Walker (13 percent) and Jeb Bush (12).

And yet.

“This is not a national primary,” Kerrey said, noting that Trump’s 24 percent has dubious predictive power for a consequential handful of individual contests in early states that aren’t exactly mirrors of America. “So who the hell cares what his numbers are nationally?”

“He’s not going to do that well in Iowa,” Kerrey continued. “There’s nothing about Trump that indicates that the evangelical community there is going to embrace him. And does anyone seriously think he has the kind of ground organization in New Hampshire to turn people out to vote?”

“He’s got no ground game,” Kerrey continued. “It’s all up in Donald’s head! Everything’s in Donald’s head. It’s the political version of ‘Being John Malkovich.’ ”

“The people running the networks know this,” he added, sighing. But they deliberately play it down as they seize almost every opportunity — including the McCain insult — to Trump anew and to Trump ad nauseam.

Kerrey groaned. “They’ve got a good sideshow going: ‘Are veterans offended?’ ‘Donald, are you going to apologize?’ For insulting McCain? He’s been insulted by better than Trump.”

Television has succumbed to the mantra more than other media, because it in particular thrives on theater, which Trump provides in excess. But those of us at newspapers and websites have definitely done our part, uncertain of the best approach.

The Huffington Post’s answer was to relegate Trump coverage to its entertainment section, explaining that he’s putting on a show, not running a serious campaign. So it was there that readers found a story about Trump’s latest attention-getting prank: During a televised rally on Tuesday, he ratcheted up his continuing feud with Senator Lindsey Graham by publicly divulging Graham’s cellphone number.

But for all Trump’s antics and nonsense, he placed second to Bush in a New Hampshire poll late last month. In a more recent Iowa poll, he trailed only Walker.

Kerrey conceded: “I don’t think you can really ignore it. But you have to evaluate, with some expertise, what his odds of being the Republican nominee are. And they’re practically zero.”

“Yeah, 5,000 people showed up at your event,” he said. “I could get 5,000 people to show up at the bearded lady. He is, in his way, a freak show.”

Kerrey thinks that Trump is principally interested in promoting his brand and padding his net worth, even if he has perhaps suffered a few short-term setbacks because of companies’ severing ties with him.

I think that Trump has an ego as ravenous as they come, with dimensions remarkable even for the political arena, and that his presidential bid is a splendiferous buffet for it. Watch it sup. See it swell. Look now: It’s a marvelous blimp.

But is his engorgement our debasement?

“It is not good for American politics,” Kerrey said.

I noted that some of his fellow Democrats were reveling in Trump, who was causing the Republican Party grief.

“I’m not putting my partisan hat on,” Kerrey said. “I’m putting my American hat on and saying: I want us to elect a great leader. And it’s going to be difficult as it is, because the money spent will be in the billions. It’s going to be hard enough to keep our balance and select a great leader even without this clown.”

I’d advise investing heavily in popcorn futures.  The Republican debates are coming…

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