Those who yearn for the halcyon days of empirical statements and complete sentences in politics will find Barack Obama’s defense of the Iran deal a long-awaited balm. As well they should; Obama is an intelligent person with a genuine command of the issues and the ability to explain them clearly and concisely. Unfortunately, he’s also clever.
Read this passage carefully:
Second, the JCPOA has worked in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. For decades, Iran had steadily advanced its nuclear program, approaching the point where they could rapidly produce enough fissile material to build a bomb. The JCPOA put a lid on that breakout capacity. Since the JCPOA was implemented, Iran has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium; removed two-thirds of its centrifuges (over 13,000) and placed them under international monitoring; and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium — the raw materials necessary for a bomb. So by any measure, the JCPOA has imposed strict limitations on Iran’s nuclear program and achieved real results.
Now answer this: before the Iran deal was established, was Iran building nuclear weapons? It sure sounds like it, right? It was “steadily advancing,” “approaching” the point where it might have achieved “breakout capacity.” Scary! Also, 13,000! That’s a big number!
The correct answer, however, is no. There’s no evidence that’s Iran’s “weapons program” was ever anything more than a bogeyman conjured up by people with political interests in facilitating an invasion of the country. One does not need “access to the intelligence” to be able to state this with relative confidence. Because the U.S. has been constantly scaremongering about this for years now, we can be sure that, if there really was hard evidence, we’d have heard all about it. You’ll note that Obama’s statement above is composed entirely of weasel words. The “raw materials” for a bomb do not constitute a weapons program, saying that something is “approaching” the point where it could be “rapidly produced” specifically means it is not being produced, and the whole thing is based on the conflation of “nuclear program” with “nuclear weapons program.” None of this is a mistake; Obama is obviously apprised of the real intelligence on the subject, and he is choosing these words deliberately.
(By the way, for anyone who’s not aware of this: the reason the U.S. government hates Iran is that they overthrew our puppet government there. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with theocracy or human rights or terrorism sponsorship, since we’re still BFFs with Saudi Arabia, which is way worse on all possible counts. And of course it would be perfectly rational for Iran to choose to pursue nuclear weapons now, since it’s been demonstrated that the American mind only understands force.)
So this raises the critical question of what the hell Obama thinks he’s doing. Presumably, the argument in favor of the Iran deal is that Iran is not in fact part of an “axis of evil” and should simply be negotiated with normally. Indeed, one might have imagined that this was the entire point, that the deal was built on the recognition that the United States and Iran have no real reason to be in conflict with each other and should be working together towards deescalation and a normalization of relations. Should one hold such a belief, though, one would be in for some pretty strenuous disagreement from, for example, Barack Obama:
Because of these facts, I believe that the decision to put the JCPOA at risk without any Iranian violation of the deal is a serious mistake. Without the JCPOA, the United States could eventually be left with a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East. We all know the dangers of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. It could embolden an already dangerous regime; threaten our friends with destruction; pose unacceptable dangers to America’s own security; and trigger an arms race in the world’s most dangerous region. If the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program under the JCPOA are lost, we could be hastening the day when we are faced with the choice between living with that threat, or going to war to prevent it.
While I don’t normally recommend that anyone pay any attention to politicians, I really wish all the people slobbering about how rational and thoughtful Obama is would actually read what he’s saying here. He is explicitly saying that, if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, the U.S. would be justified in launching a war of aggression. In fact, he’s saying more than that: by framing the situation as a “losing choice,” he’s saying that the U.S. would be required to do so. (It’s always pretty hilarious whenever someone uses the phrase “all options are on the table,” because there’s actually only ever one option on the table.)
This is important because it illuminates what Obama’s actual goal here is. It is not peace. If it were, he’d be responding to the present situation by arguing that there’s no reason to invade Iran. Instead, he’s doing the opposite: he’s specifically arguing against the possibility of “living with the threat.” So the question is why exactly the two choices he presents are both supposed to be “losing” ones. The reason Obama thinks war is a losing choice is that he’s smart. He knows that war is the worst thing and, moreover, that, for all the destruction it causes in the name of “necessity,” it generally doesn’t even achieve it’s own explicit immediate-term goals (the Iraq War, for example, exacerbated the spread of terrorism rather than containing it). But the reason he thinks a nuclear-armed Iran is a losing choice is that, in that case, the U.S. government’s dominance over the region would be weakened. In both cases, then, that is what he’s actually after: the successful expansion of U.S. imperialism.
And Obama genuinely does deserve credit for being smart. I actually want to emphasize this. The Iraq War was evil in terms of intention, but it was also badly executed, which made it worse. So the fact that Obama took the “smart” approach to Iran is not something to be underestimated. The Iran deal was by far the best thing Obama did as president. It was an unambiguously positive development that prevented one of the worst available outcomes from occurring – the U.S. government’s constant saber-rattling means that war really was an immediate danger, and unfortunately now still is.
But objecting only to the “stupidity” of war means you agree with its goals. The tide of official opinion has shifted against the Iraq War, but not out of morality. Almost everyone objects only to the fact that Iraq became a “quaqmire,” and Obama is one of those people. Maybe he would have been smart enough not to go into Iraq in the first place. He did speak out against the war, but he was a political unknown at the time, so he wasn’t really under any pressure not to. More to the point, we know full well what he really believes from what he actually did as president: he not only maintained but accelerated the state of perpetual warfare by expanding targeted assassination and surveillance programs and constantly engaging in unilaterally-declared undebated military actions. In this sense he was actually a far more effective imperialist than George W. Bush, because he expanded the franchise without provoking any opposition – despite the fact that all the things everyone was supposedly opposed to were still occurring. “Smart” imperialism may not get us Iraq, but it does get us Libya and Syria.
The situation with the Iran deal is frequently framed as a matter of Donald Trump trying to “undo” all of Obama’s accomplishments, but it’s actually just a matter of him being a moron. He lacks the mental capacity to assess either the merits of the deal or the consequences of withdrawal. (For example, a lot of people noticed that reneging on the Iran deal would make negotiations with North Korea untenable, meaning it was a bad idea regardless of the merits of the deal itself. It’s clear that this problem never even entered Trump’s mind.) He isn’t capable of processing the situation on any level other than labeling the deal a “bad thing” and therefore getting rid of it.
So what’s critical to understand is that, while this is a real difference – we’re worse off without the Iran deal – it’s a difference of execution rather than intention. The motives on which he’s acting here are the same as Obama’s: he’s trying to advance U.S. imperialism. During the campaign, a lot of political analysts thought Trump was an “isolationist,” basically because they’re incapable of doing political analysis. His objections to the Iraq War were entirely circumstantial: it wasted a bunch of money and caused bad things to happen (specifically, it had become unpopular and it was indirectly associated with both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, so it was a convenient attack vector). They were not moral; he was quite clear that his preferred approach to foreign policy was to “bomb them and take their oil,” which is precisely imperialism expressed in its crudest terms.
(I don’t totally understand why people think Trump is “evasive” or has “no ideology.” He’s entirely transparent. On second thought, I lied, I understand it perfectly well. The reason is that Trump only has the basic underlying ideology that most of the people talking about him implicitly share, so they don’t understand it as an ideology. (For example, Trump is obviously in favor of capitalism, and since most people don’t realize that capitalism is optional, they don’t understand that this is an ideological position. Same with imperialism.))
On Iran, Trump’s interpretation (generously defined) of the deal as a “bad deal” meant that it didn’t advantage America enough, and therefore did not exert the necessary dominance over Iran. This is the same motivation that lead Obama to pursue the deal in the first place: Iran having nuclear weapons would have allowed it to exert its own influence. This is the only reason anyone in the ruling class cares about anything. It’s exactly the same thing with North Korea: it’s only now that they’re beginning to acquire nuclear capacity and can therefore threaten our dominance over Asia that there’s suddenly a “crisis.” For anyone with the goal of peace, there was never an “Iran issue” in the first place, because Iran is not a threat to anyone – it has not been the instigator of any of the regional conflicts currently transpiring, and its involvement has been entirely defensive. Note that this is not something that the United States can claim.
Indeed, nuclear proliferation really is a vitally important issue, but not for the reasons you’ll hear from anyone in the media. For most of us, the reason nuclear weapons are a serious issue is that they can be used to murder millions of people in the blink of an eye – and they can just as easily do this accidentally as intentionally. The reason this matters to me is that Los Angeles is a priority target for anyone who wants to nuke the U.S., and there are a small number of people here whom I care about, and I refuse to accept that they can be instantly annihilated by the random whims of a tiny handful of sagging fleshpiles failing to play geopolitical checkers. (Also, blinding followed by irradiation doesn’t quite make my top 10 list of ways to die.) That’s my personal reason, at least. To be clear, the overwhelmingly more likely threat is the U.S. nuking someone else. Any other country that used nukes would be committing suicide, but the U.S. could potentially justify it and/or resist a beheading by the international community, not to mention we’re the ones with enough nukes to black out the sky, as well as the ones doing such a shit job of securing them that accidental global annihilation is actually a salient possibility. While I strongly resent my life being under this stupid of a threat, anyone being honest about this has to admit that America is the monster here, and it’s therefore everyone not being “protected” by America’s nuclear umbrella who has the real moral authority.
For politicians, though, none of this has anything to do with anything. They’re already murdering people on a constant basis; they don’t care about that. They’d be perfectly happy to kill everyone in Los Angeles if it would benefit them and they thought they could get away with it. We know perfectly well from the immediately available historical evidence that they will kill whoever they want for whatever reason they want and they will use nukes to do so if they think they can justify it. The only reason they care is because of power. Countries with nuclear weapons have the ability to resist U.S. dominance. Nobody can beat the U.S. in a straight war, but we can’t stop nukes, so a country with nukes can credibly threaten us – which is to say they can make the costs of invading them outweigh the benefits. Nuclear weapons give other nations the power to assert their own desires against the will of the U.S. government, and this is never acceptable under any circumstances.
Obama doesn’t actually want war. At least that much can be said for him. He’s not John Bolton salivating for violence, nor even John McCain singing about bombing Iran. But he is Barack Obama making jokes about killing people with drone strikes. What Obama wants is American dominance. He’s smart enough to realize that it’s better to have dominance without having to resort to war, but if we do end up having to kill a few million people here or there, he’s not going to lose any sleep over it. He’s “anti-war” only tactically, as a result of being moderately intelligent. Unlike the rest of the slack-jawed crocodiles that this country calls a government, he at least realizes that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” But he’s totally cool with taking that refuge. Let’s dispel with this fiction that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
The thing about Trump is that opposing him is easy. Indeed, it’s difficult not to, which is why so many objectively terrible people are now doing so. This is because Trump is the worst possible person. It’s actually kind of amazing, like something out of the Twilight Zone. Almost everybody has at least something that could be said for them. Y’know, Hitler loved his dogs or whatever. More to the point, Hitler had real goals that he felt passionately about and he was skillful and determined in pursuing them. Obviously, this made the consequences of his life much worse than they could have been, but it remains the case that these are respectable traits to have as a person. One can at least view Hitler as a formidable villain.
But the thing that’s amazing about Trump is that he has nothing like this going for him. There are a few things about him that would seem to be positives, but he manages to make them into negatives anyway. For example, he doesn’t actually “speak his mind” and thereby get through the “media filter,” because he’s only capable of thinking in media tropes in the first place, and he only talks to draw attention to himself, not to express ideas. So he actually uses his impulsiveness and irreverence to play into existing media narratives, resulting in him being an even more conventional and obfuscatory speaker than the typical talking-point parroting politician.
Similarly, while it may seem that Trump is a dynamic person who takes action and makes a difference in the world, he doesn’t direct his energy at anything that actually matters. He started a whole bunch of different businesses and ventures and so forth, but none of them actually did anything – none of the products he hawked are still around and none of the buildings he promoted do anything significant, so what his “high-energy” personality actually means is that he wastes more time and money than someone who just sits around and does nothing.
This is even clearer now that he actually has formal power and is doing absolutely nothing with it. If he actually cared about doing anything, he could have, among other things, made an immigration deal such as the DACA-for-wall proposal that had bipartisan support or pushed for the big infrastructure bill he likes to talk about sometimes. These things would have broken out of the political stalemate and precipitated actual changes in the country, but because Trump doesn’t actually know how to do real things, they never even came close to happening. His “energy” is instead spent playing golf and yelling at the TV. He was entirely energetic and committed when he was running for president, and this was a bad thing, because presidential campaigns are bullshit spectacles that eclipse real issues. So the practical result of this was not that anything “changed,” but that Trump simply made the 2016 campaign an even bigger and more bullshit-filled spectacle than ever before. He only knows how to do things that aren’t real things.
Yet all of this actually makes Trump a less bad president than a lot of others, at least so far. He’s at least going to stay ahead of Bush Jr. as long as he doesn’t start a major war. And his total lack of policy understanding might actually lead to him not fucking up the South Korean president’s efforts at a peace treaty, which, given the current context of U.S. foreign policy, would qualify as a significant passive achievement. But this obviously doesn’t reflect well on Trump – it’s just a coincidence, or what philosophers call “moral luck.” It’s actually part of why he’s the worst possible person: being ineffective in an immoral situation results in better outcomes.
By contrast, Obama has plenty of admirable character traits, but these don’t necessarily lead to good results. I mean, Obama isn’t nearly as good of a person as people make him out to be. The fact that he immediately cashed in upon exiting the presidency really does reflect quite badly on him – anyone making excuses for Obama on this front is presumably unaware that Jimmy Carter exists. I mean, he’s, like, “nice,” but he’s clearly not any kind of moral paragon, so there’s really quite a lot of wishful thinking going on here. It would be nice if the “first black president” were a deep moralist and a bold, original thinker, but things that would be nice tend to not actually be the case.
Anyway, the point is that Obama applied his admirable skills towards the execution of his goals, so the actual results of his actions depend on what those goals were. In response to the financial crisis, Obama’s goal was to preserve the stability of financial capitalism, and that’s exactly what he did. A less skilled individual might not have been able to pull it off. But Obama did, so the speculators kept speculating, the entire value of the recovery went to rich fucks, and we now have a less equal society that retains all of the same problems that caused the crash in the first place, along with a “healthy” economy where no one can afford housing.
Of course, stabilizing the economy was better than not stabilizing it, but that’s not much of a laurel to rest on. This is clearer in the case of Obamacare. While the law had a lot of negative consequences, such as the rise of high-deductible plans, the situation was already pretty well fucked, so it’s probably better that it passed. But while we may want to defend Obamacare on a tactical basis, we should still be opposed to it on a moral one, because it still supports a system in which people live or die based on how much money they have. This isn’t about demanding perfection. It’s perfectly rational to take what you can get, but it would be entirely irrational not to then continue on to pursue something that’s actually good. Indeed, it would precisely be an insistence on ideological purity at the expense of engaging with real conditions in the world.
And the thing is, if you try to do something like this, Obama is going to be against you. He’s against war with Iran, so if you’re engaged with the specific issue of trying to prevent a war with Iran, he may be effective as a situational ally. You know what they say about politics. But if you then move on to trying to stop U.S. imperialism, he’s going to be just as opposed to you as he is to Trump. More so, in fact, because in this case he will actually disagree with your goals rather than merely your methods.
Being against the worst thing in the world doesn’t make you a good person, and being the preferable alternative to the worst thing in the world doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than that you’re the second worst thing in the world. More to the point, there’s opposition, and then there’s opposition. If you’re against someone because you think they’re doing a bad job of implementing your goals, what that means is that you’re on their side, you just have some constructive criticism for them. Barack Obama is on Donald Trump’s side, not yours.
This is a hard thing to convince people of, because the superficial differences are so great – and, as mentioned, they’re things that actually matter, so you can’t just ignore them. But acting in the real world rather than merely indulging in comfortable fantasies requires doing things which are hard, such as drawing distinctions that aren’t readily apparent, and making choices other than those that are explicitly presented to you. Sometimes you have to cut against people’s instinctive personal reactions rather than indulging them. We don’t always have the convenience of our enemies manifesting themselves as sneering grotesques, broadcasting their vileness for all to see. Sometimes the ones who smile are the villains. The lines aren’t always clear or straight, either, and the complexity of any significant issue makes it easy to get things wrong. But I can say this: if you care about progress, if you care about equality, if you care about justice – indeed, if you care about anything at all other than the continued stability of the American Empire – Barack Obama is your enemy.