Blogs > Mark Byrnes's Facing Backwards > "Unconditional Surrender" in Iran

Apr 9, 2015

"Unconditional Surrender" in Iran

tags: Iran,Mark Byrnes,nuclear agreement

Mark Byrnes is associate professor and chair of the History Department at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

After the nuclear framework agreement was announced last Thursday, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton told CBS News that "the only acceptable deal would be Iran's nuclear disarmament."

This statement shows the value of reporters asking questions. Cotton’s carefully crafted public statement was more measured. But when asked questions, the senator’s true belief came out: there was no deal he would find acceptable that did not constitute unconditional surrender on the part of Iran.

Unfortunately, this mindset all too often typifies the modern American right. Like the uncompromising Tea Party Congressional caucus does with domestic issues, Cotton seems to think that in diplomacy, any kind of compromise with an adversary, anything less than total victory, is abject failure.

As I’ve written before, this attitude is dangerous enough when it shuts down the U.S. government or blocks meaningful action in Congress. When it is brought to bear on the world stage, it can be catastrophic.

To some extent, this is a product of misunderstanding the legacy of World War II. Allied policy toward the Axis was unconditional surrender, and was designed to keep the strange Anglo-Soviet-American alliance together by ruling out a separate peace with Nazi Germany by any of the three. Since for Americans World War II became the ideal “good” war, unconditional surrender became the favorite American war policy.

Ever since, the idea of “unconditional surrender” has haunted American presidents. Harry Truman had to deal with it when Gen. Douglas MacArthur wanted all-out war against China during the Korean War, trumpeting “There is no substitute for victory.” Lyndon Johnson’s fear that the country would demand a clear-cut, World War II-style outcome in Vietnam is one of the reasons he sought to downplay the war and chose the disastrous policy of gradual escalation.

There are several problems with this mindset. For one,World War II was a unique set of circumstances. Taking any general rule from it is inherently suspect, but for far too many Americans, the dangerous conclusion seems to be that the United States should always and everywhere get its way completely, and that any failure to do so is the result of some weakness, some loss of nerve by an insufficiently “tough” president. This myth of American omnipotence is a millstone around every president’s neck. No American president can dictate to the world. (No, not even Ronald Reagan.) Even unconditional surrender in World War II was not solely the product of American power, but of the combined American-Soviet-British forces.

Even more important, however, is the tendency to see every international disagreement as the equivalent of war. The potential for a nuclear-armed Iran is undeniably a serious issue. But the United States is not at war with Iran. It is engaged in diplomacy, and the nature of diplomacy inherently involves compromise. The Obama administration’s goal is to avoid a war and prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. That may yet prove impossible.

What is unquestionably impossible is Cotton’s demand for Iranian “nuclear disarmament” without war.  (“Nuclear disarmament” is a misnomer in any case--I am not aware of anyone claiming Iran already has nuclear weapons, so it would be impossible for it to “disarm.”)

Yet the myth of American omnipotence has led Cotton either to believe that such an impossibility is possible, or that American power is so vast that it can impose its will on Iran by force. How anyone can look at the American misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last 14 years and still believe that is beyond me.

I have no idea whether this framework will lead to a detailed agreement, or whether  such an agreement if reached will prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But I do know that reflexive, tough-guy posturing and demands for unconditional surrender will not prevent that outcome either.

If jingos like Cotton want a war with Iran, they should say so plainly and honestly, and make the case to the American people. They should explain exactly how such a war will guarantee the outcome they desire. They should explain at what cost in American lives and treasure total victory will come. They should explain why military action will produce greater stability in the region than diplomacy will.

But they won’t. It is so much easier to posture and pretend that “toughness” alone can magically produce results.

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