Yes, it’s a poor deal in many respects, and the Republicans, and some Democrats, who are criticizing it are right to do so. But this also must be said: Talk is easy, and also cheap. It is the favored medium of members of Congress, particularly those in opposition, and it is the particular specialty of presidential candidates, whose only task is to stir the blood of their followers.
Critics of the recent nuclear deal struck between Iran and the United States are entirely right to point out the serious challenge that will now be posed by the Islamic republic. It is an aspiring hegemon in an important region of the world. It is deeply engaged in a region-wide war that encompasses Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf States and the Palestinian territories. It subsidizes the murderous but collapsing regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and therefore bears primary responsibility for the growing strength of the Islamic State and other radical jihadist forces in that country and in neighboring Iraq, where it is simultaneously expanding its influence and inflaming sectarian violence. It supports Hezbollah and Hamas, both sitting on the front line against an American ally, both acting as proxies for Iranian influence in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. If and when Iran gets nuclear weapons, or even becomes a nuclear threshold state, its regional power will be even greater, as will its ability to resist outside pressure.
This is all true, and it is also not new. The burgeoning challenge posed by Iran has been developing for years. And although the effort to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon has always been important, it has by no means been the only element of a strategy to keep Iranian power in check.
Any serious strategy aimed at resisting Iranian hegemony has also required confronting Iran on the several fronts of the Middle East battlefield. In Syria, it has required a determined policy to remove Assad by force, using U.S. air power to provide cover for civilians and create a safe zone for Syrians willing to fight. In Iraq, it has required using American forces to push back and destroy the forces of the Islamic State so that we would not have to rely, de facto, on Iranian power to do the job. Overall, it has required a greater U.S. military commitment to the region, a reversal of both the perceived and the real withdrawal of American power. And therefore it has required a reversal of the downward trend in U.S. defense spending, especially the undoing of the sequestration of defense funds, which has made it harder for the military even to think about addressing these challenges, should it be called upon to do so.
So the question for Republicans who are rightly warning of the danger posed by Iran is: What have they done to make it possible for the United States to begin to have any strategy for responding? Back in 2013, when President Barack Obama was contemplating launching airstrikes against Assad’s forces in response to his use of chemical weapons, leading Senate Republicans, some now running for president, came out against such action. They were fearful at the time of alienating the anti-interventionist followers of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.. They made up excuses about how such action would make U.S. warplanes “al-Qaida’s air force.” With the exception of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who among the current crop of candidates spoke up in support of what might have been a first crucial step toward pushing Assad, and with him, Iran, out of Syria?
And what about Iraq? Very few Republicans have been willing to say the obvious: that without a commitment of U.S. ground forces, it will be impossible to drive the Islamic State out, and that without such an effort, the only powers likely to succeed in Iraq will be the Islamic State and Iran.
Finally, and most important, there is the defense budget. The ability of the United States to do anything about the threats posed in the Middle East dwindles by the day. At a time of growing Chinese power, an aggressive Russia and an increasingly hegemonic Iran, the defense budget continues to be an afterthought, among Republicans as well as Democrats. Efforts this year to lift the sequester caps failed. Even the president’s proposed defense budget was higher than what the Republican Congress has delivered. Despite dire warnings by successive secretaries of defense, successive chairmen of the joint chiefs and other leading men and women in uniform, Congress, controlled in both houses by Republicans, does nothing. The army is about to be forced to cut 40,000 soldiers from its active force, but Republican leaders stand by the sequester.
So, yes, by all means, rail about the deal. We all look forward to the hours of floor speeches and campaign speeches that lie ahead. But it will be hard to take Republican criticisms seriously unless they start doing the things that are in their power to do to begin to address the challenge.
Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.