The latest dispute between the US and Iran is hurtling toward a resolution by diplomacy or war. That’s the stark choice President Obama laid out in arguing for public support of his diplomatic moves to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.
Americans debating Obama’s negotiations ought to review how a previous president handled a previous dispute between the two nations. When Iranian revolutionaries held American diplomats hostage, Ronald Reagan did not hesitate to choose diplomacy.
Despite Reagan’s often bellicose rhetoric on foreign affairs, he gladly announced the release of the US hostages shortly after his inauguration, a development brought about by determined diplomacy by the departing Carter administration and, reportedly, backroom deal-making by Reagan campaign operatives.
Later in his administration, reversing a controversial policy of confronting the Soviet Union’s communist ideology in proxy wars in Central America and Afghanistan, Reagan effectively ended the nuclear-war threatening Cold War through negotiations with the Soviets.
“From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev carved a joint legacy in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end,” noted an historical review by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. “Both leaders pursued their own agendas with a focus that some considered heroic and others considered reckless, but their dialogue led to taking a step back from the brink of nuclear disaster.”
In contrast, Reagan also presided over military policies that provided weapons to both sides of the Iraq-Iran War, adding fuel to a cauldron of regional and religious conflicts that has consumed millions of lives and billions of dollars and is still flaring and flaming across the Middle East. The Reagan administration also funded an army of Islamic fundamentalists to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, which morphed into the Taliban and Al Qaeda groups that have been battling US armed forces for the past decade and more.
There is no end in sight to these wars without persistent diplomacy.
Several years ago, Phyllis Bennis, a peace advocate with the Institute of Policy Studies, suggested applying a peace proposal by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for ending the war in Vietnam to Afghanistan.
Addressing the seemingly endless war raging in Indochina, King offered a plan for ending that conflict. Speaking at New York’s Riverside Church in April 1967, he said:
"I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
1. End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
2. Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
3. Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
4. Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future Vietnam government.
5. Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam ... “
Instead of waging diplomacy, however, the US continued waging war in Vietnam and neighboring nations for another eight years until the ignominious end in 1975.
A similar scenario is relentlessly playing out in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Everything short of nuclear war has been waged by US armed forces and still these bitter wars roil the region. The Obama administration’s diplomatic outreach to Iran is a necessary start in transforming US policy from counter-productive, destructive military actions to patient, persistent diplomacy.
“Viewed through a broader lens, the [nuclear weapons] agreement could open a new U.S.-Iran relationship,” Phyllis Bennis wrote in a recent op-ed essay with Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action. “Economic, cultural, and travel opportunities could flourish between our peoples. Security cooperation could begin between Washington and Tehran, reflecting our shared interests in bringing urgently needed peace and stabilization in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and beyond.”
A model for such cooperation is the relationship that developed between the US and Vietnam once the war there ended.
“The war that took place here half a century ago divided each of our countries and it stemmed from the most profound failure of diplomatic insight and political vision,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at a commemoration of peaceful relations in Hanoi earlier this month.
“Vietnam and our shared journey from conflict to friendship crosses my mind frequently as I grapple with the complex challenges that we face in the world today,” added Kerry, who fought in the Vietnam War and then worked in the peace movement to bring it to an end.
“That we are standing here today celebrating 20 years of normalized relations is proof that we are not doomed merely to repeat the mistakes that we have made in the past," Kerry continued. "We have the ability to overcome great bitterness and to substitute trust for suspicion and replace enmity with respect. The United States and Vietnam have again proven that former adversaries really can become partners, even in the complex world that we face today. And as much as that achievement matters to us, it is also a profound and timely lesson to the rest of the world.”
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