By Greg Cusack
Much of the initial outcry against the accord reached between Iran and major world powers was predictable, coming from the same tawdry crowd that has resisted everything President Barrack Obama has proposed. Others objecting are those for whom the only dependable solution apparently requires a military response.
While these two groups together represent a large segment of the American population, they are by no means the majority. How then can we explain the unease of so many ordinary citizens?
Clearly, the unrelenting media spin by the hardliners in this country has negatively influenced public opinion. But other factors are at work, captured in two old sayings, which together make significant change very difficult:
• The devil you know is preferable to the devil you do not know — most of us are more comfortable with “the way things are” even if change might actually achieve a more desirable outcome.
• The perfect is the enemy of the good — we often reject good solutions because they are not sufficiently perfect. This is the equivalent of always viewing a glass half-filled as half-empty. It is not what has been gained by an agreement that matters most, but those things that have not been obtained.
Taken together, these make it much easier for those who oppose any initiative to block it. Those who steadily work to achieve progress, on the other hand, believe that such can only occur as a result of steady persistence, which is usually realized in small, but measurable, gains.
Even though the Iran accord was a drawn-out process involving several major world players (including China and Russia) who have not always been “on the same page” with each other, its opponents assert that a “better deal” could have been secured if only our negotiators had been “firm and tough enough.” As it is, they argue, the agreement actually reached is “so bad that we should have walked away rather than agreed to it.”
But what kind of “better deal,” in reality, was possible? When pressed on this, the hard-liners either mention things that were never part of the negotiations’ goals — for example, requiring Iran to also formally recognize Israel’s right to exist — or an agreement in which Iran would have completely met all of our demands. The former tact is irrelevant — from the onset of negotiations the goal was focused on keeping Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. As for the second — insisting that the only acceptable outcome would have effectively involved Iran’s capitulation to our terms while abandoning theirs — is absurd. In truth, hardliners would have opposed it no matter its terms!
But they fail to think through the very real dangers that exist if we do not embrace the opportunity this agreement offers.
The hard truth is that if all of the other negotiating parties were willing to sign the accord, but we were not, or if Congress rejects the agreement, most of the sanctions imposed upon Iran will be lifted anyway, leaving the United States more isolated than before in the Middle East. This would continue the current hostile relations between the U.S. and Iran and almost certainly lead to rising tensions, perhaps even to war. How is this outcome “preferable?”
I do not know that the accord is the best that could have been achieved under the circumstances, or that it will avoid further conflict between our countries or even halt Iran’s someday acquiring nuclear weapon capability. It is, however, the agreement that we have and it appears to prevent the spread of nuclear weaponry in the Middle East for at least a definite number of years. Are these not tangible gains worth preserving, even though they are not “perfect?”
Transformative, risk-taking leadership, while rare, is the only way significant progress occurs. How differently might history have unfolded had:
• President Franklin Roosevelt not reached difficult understandings with the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin?
• If John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev had not cooperated in stepping back from the nuclear brink in 1962?
• Had Richard Nixon not risked going to China to respond to peaceful initiatives?
• Had Soviet President Gorbachev not so skillfully and courageously guided his nation’s course during the rocky, unpredictable years of the Soviet Union’s dissolution?
Each had the courage to stretch beyond the knowable, to risk attempting to build trust with persons heretofore regarded as enemies, opting to choose understanding and peace over the illusory “comfort” of staying with old attitudes and behavior.
In many ways, today’s so-called “leaders” seem greatly diminished. Too many of us seem to have lost the ability to imagine peace. May we somehow find the courage to help each other remove our trembling fingers f rom the trigger of war!
Frankly, the degree of certainty and “safety” that some long for only exists in the land of the dead. I much prefer the hard work of building bridges among the living.
(Greg Cusack taught college, served on the Davenport City Council from 1969-73, and the Iowa House of Representatives from 1971-81. He then served as executive director of National Catholic Rural Life Conference from 1981 until late 1986. His public service continued in other areas until he retired as Chief Benefits Officer of the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System in 2004.)