The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, to her credit, supports the international nuclear agreement with Iran. In her new column, however, she criticizes President Obama anyway, not over the substance of his foreign policy, but for not being nice enough to the diplomatic deal’s opponents.
Obama once understood, even celebrated, this gray zone of difficult policy choices. He was a man who took pains to recognize and validate the legitimate concerns of those on the opposite side of nearly any complex debate.The new Obama, hardened and embittered – the one on display in his American University speech last week and in the follow-up spate of interviews – has close to zero tolerance for those who reach contrary conclusions.
In fairness to the columnist, Marcus goes on to make substantive suggestions about how best to argue in support of the deal, and she concedes “Obama’s exasperation is understandable.” Her broader point seems to be that she wants to see the deal presented in the most effective way possible, but Marcus nevertheless chides the president for his tone and unwillingness to “accommodate” his foes.
She’s not alone. After the president noted that the American right and the Iranian hardliners find themselves on the same side of this fight, other pundits, including National Journal’s Ron Fournier, raised related concerns about Obama being harsh.
That’s a shame – there are constructive ways to look at the debate over U.S. policy towards Iran, but hand-wringing over presidential tone seems misplaced.
Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. President Obama and his team defied long odds, assembled an unlikely international coalition, and struck a historic deal. By most fair measures, this is one of the great diplomatic accomplishments of this generation.
For all the incessant whining from the “Why Won’t Obama Lead?” crowd, this was a triumph for presidential leadership, positioning Obama as one of the most effective and accomplished leaders on the international stage.
To watch this unfold and complain that Obama is simply too mean towards those who hope to kill the deal and derail American foreign policy seems to miss the point.
What’s more, let’s also not lose sight of these detractors’ case. Some of the deal’s critics have compared Obama to Hitler. Others have accused the White House of being a state-sponsor of terrorism. Many of the agreement’s foes in Congress clearly haven’t read the deal – they decided in advance that any agreement would be unacceptable, regardless of merit – and many more have approached the entire policy debate “with vagueness, deception and hysteria.”
Slate’s William Saletan attended the recent congressional hearings on the policy and came away “dismayed” at what opponents of the deal had to offer. Republicans, he concluded, seem “utterly unprepared to govern,” presenting little more than “dishonesty,” “incomprehension,” and an “inability to cope with the challenges of a multilateral world.”
To Marcus’ point, it’s fair to say that the president is not “taking pains to recognize and validate the legitimate concerns of those on the opposite side.” I suppose it’s possible Obama could invest more energy in telling Americans that his critics, when they’re not comparing him to Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, or both, are well-intentioned rivals.
But at this stage of the debate, there should be a greater emphasis on sound policy judgments and accurate, substantive assessments. I’m less concerned with whether Obama is being nice to his critics and more concerned with whether he’s correct.