Not every conflict was averted, but the world avoided nuclear catastrophe, and we created the time and the space to win the Cold War without firing a shot at the Soviets.
Now, when I ran for president eight years ago as a candidate who had opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq, I said that America didn’t just have to end that war. We had to end the mindset that got us there in the first place. It was a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy, a mindset that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus, a mindset that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported. (Barack Obama, “Full text: Obama gives a speech about the Iran nuclear deal,” The Washington Post, August 5, 2015).
The peace movement has often been faced with a dilemma. Should it channel its energies in opposition to imperialism, including economic expansion and covert operations, or should it mobilize against war, or both. The problem was reflected in President Obama’s August 5, 2015 speech defending the anti-nuclear proliferation agreement with Iran. On the one hand he defended diplomacy as the first tool of a nation’s foreign policy and on the other hand his defense included the argument that through diplomacy the United States “won” the Cold War, and thereby defeated a bloc of states that opposed capitalist expansion. The implication of his argument was that pursuing imperialism remained basic to United States foreign policy but achieving it through peace was better than through war.
The speech was presented at American University 52 years after President Kennedy called for peaceful competition with the former Soviet Union. In June, 1963, nine months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly led to nuclear war, and weeks after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s call for “peaceful coexistence,” President Kennedy responded by urging the use of diplomacy rather than war in the ongoing conflict with the Soviet Union.
A small but growing number of scholars and activists at that time had begun to articulate the view that the threat of nuclear war, growing U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, and repeated covert interventions in Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, and the Congo, had to do with U.S. imperialism. The dilemma for the peace movement in 1963 then as it is in 2015 is how to respond to United States imperialism at the same time as supporting the use of diplomacy to forestall wars.
In the context of political discourse in 2015, dominated by “neoconservative” and “humanitarian interventionist” factions of the foreign policy elite, the danger of war always exists. Therefore, any foreign policy initiative that reduces the possibility of war and arguments about its necessity must be supported. The agreement with Iran supported by virtually every country except Israel constitutes an effort to satisfy the interests of Iran and the international community and without the shedding of blood and creating the danger of escalation to global war.
Neoconservatives, celebrants of war, have had a long and growing presence in the machinery of United States foreign policy. James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense in the Truman Administration, was a leading advocate for developing a militaristic response to the Soviet Union in the years after World War II. As historian Andrew Bacevich pointed out, Forrestal was one of the Truman administrators who sought to create a “permanent war economy.” He was, in Bacevich’s terms, a founding member of the post-World War II “semi-warriors.”
Subsequent to the initiation of the imperial response to the “Soviet threat”--the Marshall Plan, NATO, wars in Korea and Vietnam, the arms race--other semi-warriors continued the crusade. These included the Dulles brothers (John and Alan), Air Force General Curtis LeMay, and prominent Kennedy advisors including McGeorge Bundy and Walter Rostow, architect of the “noncommunist path to development,” in Vietnam.
Key semi-warriors of our own day, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Elliott Abrams, Robert Kagan, and others who formed the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) in the 1990s, gained their first experience in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The PNAC view of how the United States should participate in world affairs is to use military superiority to achieve foreign policy goals. The key failure of Clinton foreign policy, they claimed, was his refusal to use force to transform the world. For starters, he should have overthrown Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
The neoconservative policy recommendations prevailed during the eight years of the George Walker Bush administration. International organizations were belittled, allies were ignored, arms control agreements with Russia were rescinded and discourse on the future prioritized planning for the next war. And concretely the United States launched long, bloody, immoral wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Humanitarian interventionists, more liberals than conservatives, argued that the United States should use force, but more selectively, to achieve various goals. These goals included interventions that allegedly defended the quest for human rights. Advocates of humanitarian interventionism argued that the United States must use all means available, military and diplomatic, to maximize interests and values. And force need not be the first or only instrument of policy.
But in the end the humanitarian interventionists encouraged bombing Serbia, intervening in a civil war in Libya, funding rebels perpetuating war in Syria, expanding military training and a U.S. presence in Africa, and funding opposition elements against the government in Venezuela. In addition, with advice from humanitarian interventionists, the United States increased the use of drones to target enemies of U.S. interests in East Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Middle East.
Neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists (and in earlier times anti-communists) have led the charge for war-making in the United States since World War II. Between the end of the war and the 1990s, 10 million people died in wars in which the United States had a presence. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women serving in the armed forces of the United States have died or been permanently scarred by U.S. wars. And the physical landscape of Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf, Central America, and the Middle East has been devastated by war. And in the United States, foreign policy elites, politicians, and think tank experts still advocate violence to address international problems.
Therefore, in the context of a huge arms industry and global economic and political interests, any presidential initiative that uses diplomacy rather than force, declares its opposition to unilateral action, and challenges the war mindset deserves the support of the peace movement. Given the long and painful United States war system, the battle to secure the agreement between the P5 plus 1 nuclear agreement with Iran is worthy of support.