POLITICS

Obama Channels JFK At American University Speech On Iran

"We created the time and space to win the Cold War without firing a shot at the Soviets."

WASHINGTON -- When President John F. Kennedy ventured to American University in 1963 to deliver a landmark speech on arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, he sought to push back against domestic critics who accused him of naivete, of coddling an evil nation bent on destruction that spent heavily on destabilizing proxy armies and undermined U.S. interests around the globe.

"Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament -- and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude," Kennedy said. "I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must re-examine our own attitude -- as individuals and as a nation -- for our attitude is as essential as theirs." 

Skeptics similarly warn today that Iran is untrustworthy and that a nuclear deal is a foolish move as long as the country refuses to renounce its support for destabilizing forces in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. Led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), opponents have repeatedly urged that military force be given greater consideration as a solution. "We can set them back to day zero. There is no doubt that the United States has the capability to do that," Cotton said on Tuesday.

“Iran is a mortal and unrepentant enemy,” he said last week, echoing language once used about the Soviet Union. 

Kennedy's now-famous "Strategy of Peace" speech came shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Speaking to the American University class of 1963 -- which included the late Sen. Bob Byrd (D-W.Va.), who was graduating from law school -- the president implored graduates to rethink their attitudes towards the Soviet Union an, notably, called for a nuclear test ban treaty.

"First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself," Kennedy said. "Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control."

"We need not accept that view," he continued. "Our problems are man-made -- therefore, they can be solved by man."

Kennedy, of course, was right, and the hawkish approach advocated by the Tom Cottons of the time was wrong: The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. survived the Cold War without a nuclear confrontation. War was not inevitable. Arms control negotiations led to a peaceful resolution, despite a number of proxy wars and an ongoing trust deficit.

Before his death, Kennedy tried to go even further. In May 2015, economist James Galbraith, the son of Kennedy confidant John Kenneth Galbraith, gave a speech in St. Petersburg, Russia, in which he revealed Kennedy's broader plan for the Cold War.

"In the fall of 1963, at their last conversation, President Kennedy asked my father if he would consider becoming the ambassador of the United States to the Soviet Union. Knowing my father's worldview as he did, there can be no doubt about the president’s purpose: He meant to end the Cold War," Galbraith said, according to a copy of the remarks he provided to HuffPost. "But the conversation did not continue; it was cut short at Dallas. And the Cold War dragged on for another 25 years, until two very different leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, finally brought it to an end."

Wednesday's address at American comes 52 years after Kennedy's. Obama invoked Kennedy's message as well as the man himself, urging the audience to support diplomacy over a militaristic posture. "The young president offered a different vision," Obama said of Kennedy, "but he rejected the prevailing attitude ... that equated security with a perpetual war footing." 

And it worked, Obama said. "We created the time and space to win the Cold War without firing a shot at the Soviets. The agreement now reached with the Islamic Republic of Iran builds on this tradition of strong, principled diplomacy."

The deal was struck between the U.S., Iran, Russia, China, Germany, the U.K. and France. In exchange for forswearing a nuclear weapons program and permitting inspectors to access its facilities, Iran receives relief from nuclear-related sanctions.  

Congress will vote on a resolution of disapproval of the deal in September, after it returns from summer recess. Obama has voted to veto the resolution if it is passed, and will need one-third of either the Senate or the House to stick with him to sustain the veto.

On Tuesday, three skeptical Democratic senators, Tim Kaine (Va.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) announced their support for the agreement.

Opponents have attempted to frame the debate as a choice between the existing deal and a better deal, though such a suggestion is pure fantasy. If the U.S. rejects the current agreement, it would be impossible to bring China, Russia, Germany, France and the U.K. back to the table to reimpose sanctions -- and all because Congress finds Iran to be "mortal and unrepentant," in Cotton's words. 

"The final criticism you may hear is the notion that there is a better deal to be had -- this is a bad deal; need a better deal! -- one that relies on vague promises of 'toughness' and a broader, indefinite application of sanctions," Obama said Wednesday. "Those making this argument are either ignorant of Iranian society, or not being straight with the American people."

The president made it clear that if the goal is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the real choice is between the existing deal and a war. It's a simple fact, though one that skeptics have shied away from. 

"Because more sanctions won’t produce the results that the critics want," Obama said, "congressional rejection of this deal leaves any U.S. administration only one option: another war in the Middle East. I say this not to be provocative. I’m stating a fact."
 

Obama cautioned the audience not to be swayed by the arguments of opponents, many of whom, he noted, were also wrong about the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"Between now and the congressional vote in September," he said, "you’re going to hear a lot of arguments against this deal, backed by tens of millions of dollars in advertisements. And if the rhetoric in these ads, and the accompanying commentary, sounds familiar, it should, for many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal."

"Now, when I ran for president eight years ago as a candidate who had opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq," the president continued, "I said then that America didn’t just have to end that war, we had to end the mindset that got us there in the first place. It was a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy, that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus."

"And, of course," he said, "those calling for war labeled themselves strong and decisive, while dismissing those who disagreed as weak -- even appeasers of a malevolent adversary."

The speech echoed Kennedy's warning that Americans must not see their adversary as monolithic. "No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue," Kennedy said in 1963. "As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements -- in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage."

Similarly, Obama reminded the audience that "just because Iranian hard-liners chant 'Death to America' does not mean that’s what all Iranians believe. Indeed, it’s those hard-liners who are most comfortable with the status quo, and who have been most opposed to this deal. They're making common cause with the Republican caucus."

The pursuit of peace, Kennedy understood, is boring, not something that whips up the passions of nationalistic and fearful voters. But ultimately, it is the wisest course. 

"I speak of peace," he said in 1963, "as the necessary rational end of rational men. I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war--and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task." 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated when the three senators declared their support for agreement; it was Tuesday, rather than Monday.