Why David Brooks Is Dead Wrong on the Iran Deal

Excellent vivid images of flags for you. With the texture of fabric at 100 percent view.
Excellent vivid images of flags for you. With the texture of fabric at 100 percent view.

David Brooks has done with common-sense conservatism what his New York Times colleague Tom Friedman has done with taxi-driver conversations in foreign capitals: made a career of it. He does it well, too, often coming across like one of the rare grown-ups in the rumpus room of contemporary U.S. political commentary.

At first read, Brooks' column on the Iran Deal, "3 U.S. Defeats: Vietnam, Iraq and Now Iran," might seem to be a perfect example of the same. He's eminently reasonable -- certainly no warmonger! -- but he's not drinking the Obama Kool-Aid.

If you follow his argument, however, it's actually breathtakingly naive. And if you look at his sources, the column is downright embarrassing.

Let's start with his basic claim: the Iran deal constitutes a "strategic defeat" for the U.S. that ought to be ranked alongside Vietnam and Iraq. That's a rather bold juxtaposition, given that the deal is a piece of paper that has killed precisely nobody, rather than a conflict that, say, consumed 60,000 American lives along with a generation's faith in honest government, not to mention over a million Vietnamese; or a quagmire, fought on a false assumption, which killed thousands of US service members, injured over a million, created an epidemic of veteran suicide, and resulted in the deaths of half a million Iraqis.

Details, details. Vietnam, Iraq... well, Brooks is, if not just positive, at least very worried that, a couple decades from now, Iran might turn out just as bad.

Well, okay, so this might be hyperbole. He's a columnist, he's got to sell papers. That doesn't necessarily mean he's wrong in saying the Iran Deal represents a strategic defeat for the U.S., and a victory for Iran, because we didn't get what we said we wanted and they did. Right?

Wrong. If this were the case, you wouldn't expect to see Iranian hardliners, like Mohammed Ali Jafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guard, upset at Iran's strategic defeat in the deal: "Some parts of the draft have clearly crossed the Islamic republic's red lines, especially in Iran's military capabilities. We will never accept it." Months before the deal was struck, the Ayatollah laid out "red lines" for the agreement that many thought would scuttle any agreement. It turns out that the other side compromised just as much -- if not more -- than we did.

Everybody walks away a little unhappy? Sounds kind of like a negotiation.

But let's give Brooks the benefit of the doubt here, too. Maybe Iran's compromises aren't as severe as those that the U.S. made? What about his central claim that the U.S. caved on every important benchmark it declared during the negotiations?

Thus we come to Brooks' sources. Actually, strike that: his source, singular. And that one source is the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI). Five minutes of online research reveals FPI to be that peculiar Beltway equivalent to a Brooklyn pickle stand: a tiny "think tank" with an anodyne name, dedicated to the production of small-batch, locally-sourced, artisanal ideology -- in this case, neoconservative foreign policy. Its four (four!) directors are still dripping from all the water-carrying they did for the Iraq war (which, according to Brooks, is one of the now-three great strategic defeats of the past several decades. Given their track record, one wonders why Brooks is impressed by their opinion).

Incidentally, Brooks never gets around to saying what he thinks should happen after the U.S. Senate follows his advice and rejects the deal, but maybe FPI has a war plan where one of the "known knowns" involves being "greeted as liberators" by the Iranians. The focus of some future column, perhaps.

To characterize FPI as either credible or independent is a stretch. At a minimum, Brooks should have been forthright about citing such a biased source. Instead, he gives them credit for their conclusions that "exhaustively" detail the agreement's shortcomings and condemn the deal as a failure.

In equally shocking news, an area duck is reported as having quacked.

Of course, even a broken clock is right twice a day. So maybe, just maybe, despite the hyperbole around U.S. strategic defeat, and despite the evidence of compromise on both sides, and despite the extreme ideological bias of Brooks' single source -- perhaps, despite all of this, he is correct to declaim the deal as a defeat because the U.S. "did not fully [achieve]" its stated objectives.

Brooks could be right here, yes, if only you got a nuclear arms control agreement the same way you get a foot-long at Subway. If the Iran deal were a three-meat club, then Brooks might have a point. He could curse out the sandwich artist for including jalapenos and omitting pickles and over-using Italian dressing -- none of which are what the president said he wanted. The hoagie would indeed be a strategic defeat.

But that's not how a negotiated agreement works. A negotiation is a back and forth in which both sides have things they want to have, things they have to have, and an ultimate goal that, if they're smart, they never state with any precision. If success on the deal depended on ticking off all the particulars that the administration mentioned in various press conferences over nearly two years, then you wouldn't need negotiations in the first place. All of the American non-negotiables would be right there in the newspapers for Iran to accept or reject.

What Brooks never acknowledges is the possibility that a government might make public statements in order to serve the negotiation process. Is it so unbelievable that a savvy player of the Great Game might say it wants something precisely so that it can give it away? Or that it would carefully stake out a position in order to set the terms of compromise -- all in pursuit of the ultimate goal?

Brooks' critique confuses the goals declared publicly by the administration with the actual goal of the deal, which is the only thing that matters in the end. It's worth re-reading terrorism expert Graham Allison's endorsement of the deal, where he cites Nietzsche, saying that "the most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what one is trying to do."

Let's not be stupid about the deal. What the deal is trying to do is to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon -- or, to be more precise, to implement an arms control regime that would decisively hinder any attempts to develop an Iranian nuclear weapon and also give sufficient warning time, in the case of cheating, to allow for an effective intervention.

That was the goal of the negotiations. If the deal does that -- and it does, for a very good period of time - the rest is bell peppers and special sauce.