Commentary Magazine


False Choice Between War and Sanctions

One of President Obama’s favorite rhetorical tics is his consistent effort to decry his critics as trying to force Americans to make a “false choice.” As even liberal Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote back in 2011, the president used the cliché as a device to skewer his critics on every conceivable topic to the point where she and others begged him to stop lest the phrase lose all meaning. But as anyone who paid attention during the 2012 campaign knows, he ignored her advice and continued to flay Mitt Romney and the Republicans with the same routine. I was reminded of that yesterday when White House spokesperson Jay Carney was guilty of exactly what his boss always used to accuse the GOP of doing. In trying to argue against the effort to toughen sanctions on Iran, Carney claimed that the decision on the question was one in which the U.S. was choosing between war and peace. Decrying the bipartisan push for sanctions, Carney warned, “The American people do not want a march for war.”

Claiming that supporters of sanctions are pushing for war is exactly the sort of inflammatory rhetoric that Carney decries when it comes from the mouths of conservatives on other issues. Speaking in that way poisons the debate as well as further degrades the tone of political discourse. But this attack is not only extreme; it’s also illogical. If those pushing for more sanctions really wanted war, they wouldn’t be bothering with more sanctions. After all, the only point of sanctions is to aid diplomacy. The argument here is not whether one side wants war and the other doesn’t. Nobody wants war with Iran. But if the U.S. fails to put more heat on the Iranians via the only mechanism that exists—economic sanctions that would essentially prevent Iran from continuing to sell oil for money that it uses to fund both its nuclear program and international terrorism—then the choice Washington will face will be one between the use of force or deciding to “contain” an Iran that will ultimately gain nuclear capability.

Carney seems to be operating on the assumption that the deal that Secretary of State John Kerry tried to get the Iranians to sign last weekend in Geneva can actually resolve the issue. But, unfortunately for Kerry, his proposal for loosening sanctions in exchange for an Iranian promise to freeze their enrichment of uranium was so flimsy that even the French were appalled and demanded that it be strengthened. Since Iran is counting on the administration’s hunger for a deal of any sort, they understandably refused to go along and the latest P5+1 talks ended without an agreement.

While Kerry may still be laboring under the delusion that he has the Iranians right where he wants them, the Islamist regime is giving every sign that it will never give up its nuclear ambition and is only stringing the U.S. along in the same manner with which it has conducted diplomacy for the last decade. Clearly, if negotiations are ever to succeed—and it must be conceded that there is reason to doubt Iran will ever relinquish its quest for a weapon—the West needs to raise the stakes rather than starting down the slippery slope of appeasement. The divide here is not between peacemakers and warmongers—Carney’s false choice. Rather, it is between those who are still dedicated to the proposition that Iran must be forced to give up its uranium enrichment altogether as well as its plutonium alternative and those who think the only way out of President Obama’s oft-repeated pledge about stopping Iran requires the U.S. to concede their “right” to enrich and to have a nuclear program that sooner or later will be converted to military use.

Judging by the canvassing of members of the Senate by the press recently, Carney’s argument is not gaining much traction. Support for more sanctions isn’t limited to the president’s usual cast of cardboard villains, i.e. conservative Republicans. Most troubling for the president is the fact that Robert Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appears set on pushing through a new sanctions bill. Though some Democrats, like New York’s Chuck Schumer, are wavering, it’s likely that enough votes can be culled from both sides of the aisle to pass it. If so, it’s because members of the Senate like Menendez recall the administration’s arguments two and three years ago against passage of the very same sanctions that it now credits with having brought the Iranians back to the negotiating table. If those sanctions were not a step toward war, why would the new bill—which merely builds upon the existing structure to close the noose around Iran’s oil exports—be any different?

After last week’s fiasco in Geneva, Kerry’s already shaky credibility is in tatters. While it is difficult to place any confidence in the secretary or his negotiating team, if they are to have even a ghost of a chance of convincing Iran to back off, it will only be after the ayatollahs are convinced that the U.S. means business. Unfortunately, everything this administration has done—as opposed to what it has said—in the last five years has led them to think President Obama is a paper tiger. Not only do they not fear the United States, Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei believes he can manipulate the Americans into loosening existing sanctions while leaving in place the Iranian infrastructure that will make it possible for them to evade any agreement and, like the North Koreans, eventually get their bomb anyway. A vote for more sanctions is a message to Iran that this won’t be possible. Despite Kerry’s inept diplomacy and pleadings and Carney’s intemperate advocacy, the Senate should waste no time in sending it.

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