Editorial: Diplomacy must become our first instinct

It is difficult to make negotiations exciting, especially when they are of the protracted and painstakingly detailed variety. In the wake of successful negotiations with Iran that severely limited that country's nuclear capability, no one will be hopping onto an aircraft carrier beneath a "Mission Accomplished" sign. No ticker-tape parades are scheduled through Manhattan's canyons. It is unlikely anyone will market imitative video games showing humans spending hours in deep deliberations and cerebral brinksmanship instead of blowing each other and bits of the globe to smithereens.

And no kids will be sent off to become the latest fodder for misguided ambitions.

Negotiating doesn't satisfy our reptilian instincts for destroying enemies. It hardly satisfies the bloodlust evident on the recent Republican debate stage, when some candidates appeared to have come from a session of overdosing on testosterone while binge-watching Rambo flicks.

"I give you my word, if I am elected president, no serviceman or servicewoman will be forced to be on their knees, and any nation that captures our fighting men will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America," said candidate Ted Cruz in the opening salvo of the most recent debate.

Cruz, who was asked a question about the economy, couldn't wait to express his horror at the sight of the 10 sailors who had been briefly detained by Iran. It didn't matter that the sailors had already been released, after 15 hours and without further incident. It didn't matter to Cruz and the other candidates on stage that they were debating during a week filled with momentous events that were the result not of force and fury but of patient, tedious negotiations.

It is a playground view that sees such success as failure or weakness. The bluster will go on during this campaign season, and we'll probably be left without follow-up questions that ask exactly what a President Cruz might do in that circumstance and what might have been the consequences. What consequences would result from a President Donald Trump's intent to "bomb the sh--" out of the Islamic State militants?

If it's all just campaign talk, we've descended to a new level of crudeness in our political conversation. If what they say will actually guide their determinations should one of them become commander in chief, God help us all.

The awful reality of resort to a military response is not difficult to imagine. Vietnam. Iraq. Afghanistan. We have yet to learn the limits of military power. The United States has become accomplished at destruction on a massive scale. We've yet to show anywhere near the same level of skill at putting things back together. Or even at achieving other goals once a country has been decimated.

Without a shot fired, however, significant steps were achieved in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, as reported in The New York Times, "Iran had shipped 98 percent of its [nuclear] fuel to Russia, dismantled more than 12,000 centrifuges so they could not enrich uranium, and poured cement into the core of a reactor designed to produce plutonium."

It is safe to venture that the detention of U.S. sailors -- and the Pentagon has not yet explained why they went off course and ventured into Iran's territorial waters -- would have been far more complicated and lengthy had Secretary of State John Kerry not established a meaningful relationship with his counterpart in Iran during the past year.

While political candidates can bluster on stage about what they might do in such an event, the reality is that much of the rest of the world viewed the quick release of the sailors as a victory for pragmatists within Iran who wanted to preserve the nuclear agreement.

Understanding that requires acknowledging that the situation within Iran is far more complex than a dualistic "us-and-them" scenario allows.

It requires understanding what still angers some Iranians and what we have tried to scrub from our national memory: that the U.S. overthrew a democratically elected government in the 1950s, subjecting the population to the brutality of the shah's regime, and that we later supported Iraq in a protracted war with Iran.

It also requires understanding that the forces within Iran, struggling to define its future, are not monolithic.

In the days since the agreement took effect, candidate Trump has spoken of it in the most simplistic terms. "They got seven and we got five," he said at one point in describing the prisoner exchange. He also claimed, incorrectly, that the U.S. is "paying" Iran $150 billion. In fact, confirmation of Iran's actions regarding its fuel, centrifuges and reactor, among other details, led to the release of about $100 billion of its assets, mostly from past oil sales, as the U.S. and other countries agreed to lift international sanctions.

It is only those who have never been to war, who haven't had to greet the families of young men and women coming home in coffins, or who haven't spent hours in wards witnessing the broken bodies, spirits and minds of those sent to conduct our wars, who can speak in such cavalier ways of quick resort to massive violence. It is the language of utter ignorance, the foreign policy of primordial imaginations.

Diplomacy may not arouse the same passions as war, but we can do without ticker-tape parades celebrating destruction. If we're to survive in this increasingly small and vulnerable planet, diplomacy, not war, must become our first instinct.

This story appeared in the Jan 29-Feb 11, 2016 print issue under the headline: Diplomacy must become our first instinct .

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