Mike Huckabee probably thought he hit the jackpot today when President Obama responded directly to the former Arkansas governor’s characterization of the Iran nuclear deal as something that would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” When you are running for the Republican presidential nomination and struggling to get some attention in the midst of the obsessive coverage of Donald Trump, anything, even a quote that is branded on Morning Joe as the most outrageous comment yet made on the 2016 campaign trail is a positive of a sort. Yet Huckabee shouldn’t be crowing. As Joe Scarborough pointed out, raising the specter of the Holocaust in that manner actually does the administration a favor since it allows the president to dismiss his critics as hysterics and to pose as the adult in the room. Nevertheless, liberals shouldn’t be allowed to get away with denouncing the irresponsible hyperbole of Iran deal critics in this manner. As much as Huckabee’s statement was inappropriate, it is hard to argue that it is much worse than the president’s characterization of all of those opposing his policy as warmongers or Secretary of State John Kerry’s repeated efforts to intimidate both Israelis and American Jews into silence on the issue by claiming that speaking up will “isolate” them or cause the world to blame Jews for the potential defeat of a terrible agreement. Is Huckabee’s Iran deal rhetoric said really any worse?
Faced with criticism Huckabee did not back down. Instead, he defended his remarks as being entirely appropriate because of the potentially disastrous impact of the administration’s diplomacy on Western and Israeli security. The candidate is right to call out the president for failing to draw the correct conclusions from Iran’s refusal to back down on its support for terror and dedication to Israel’s destruction, even in exchange for a deal that makes them a threshold nuclear power and rewards the regime with over $100 billion. But his comment violated a standard rule of political discourse in which the person who invokes a Holocaust analogy first always loses.
It is one thing to say that the Iran deal will not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and, at best, only delays it until the agreement expires even as Tehran continues its nuclear research with its infrastructure intact with U.S. approval. But to speak of ovens is to take a rhetorical leap into an assumption that the president is pursuing this policy because he wants another Holocaust rather than as a result of naïve assumptions about the nature of Iran’s regime or their desire to “get right with the world.” That may be a leap that many of the president’s more rabid critics are prepared to make but speaking in this manner is not going to convince wavering pro-Israel Democrats to abandon the president and vote down the deal. Indeed, such loose talk about ovens merely makes it easier for Obama and Kerry to dismiss even the most pointed and well-founded criticisms.
But the faux outrage about Huckabee’s bad taste is entirely hypocritical. The president has no business playing the victim when it comes to extreme rhetoric about the nuclear deal. He and Kerry have been guilty of comments that are, if anything, just as bad as those of Huckabee.
This is, after all, the same White House that characterized peaceful protests against his deal and in favor of tough diplomacy that would hold Iran accountable in major cities around the nation as “pro-war demonstrations.” Throughout the debate about Iran, Obama has used his favorite rhetorical tic in which he always mischaracterizes the arguments of opponents and frames issues in terms of false choices. In this case, that meant labeling opponents as warmongers; the sort of scare tactic that is every bit as reprehensible as calling him another Neville Chamberlain.
As I noted last week, the president did not hesitate to use the same sort of rhetoric that earned the first President Bush the opprobrium of the Jewish world when he attempted to rally the country against “lobbyists” against the Iran agreement. Speaking on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Obama invoked traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes when he spoke of “money and lobbyists” directing the opposition to the deal. That was a direct attack on the ability of AIPAC to speak for the broad pro-Israel consensus on a life and death issue for the Jewish state. Just as bad were his comments in which he said opponents sought to involve the country in a war in which “they were not going to be making sacrifices,” an echo of Pat Buchanan’s smears of Jews during the debate over the first Gulf War.
Kerry has been just as offensive. Last week when he spoke to a group of American Jewish leaders about the Iran deal, he warned them Israel and its supporters would pay a price for their opposition to his appeasement of Iran. He said that, “if Congress were to overturn it, our friends in Israel could actually wind up being more isolated and more blamed.” Though that was framed as his “fear,” few in attendance could mistake the nature of the threat. Those who dare to seek to derail the president’s signature foreign policy achievement will be branded as obstructing efforts to further peace. At a time of rising anti-Semitism around the globe, such a warning is a not-so-subtle reminder to Israelis and Jews that they can be easily isolated.
Seen in that context, Huckabee’s rant against the deal may be seen as intemperate, but it was far less sinister than a president and secretary of state using language intended to intimidate opponents into silence and to brand them as inciting war. Huckabee ought to walk back Holocaust language. But it would be far more important if Obama and Kerry were to scale back their rhetoric about Iran. Unfortunately, the failure of the mainstream media to call out the administration for the lobby smear and other offensive comments means that even if Huckabee were to walk back his statement, it would not be matched by similar apologies from the White House and the State Department that need to be made.