A look at the continuing development of Iran-American relations
All or nothing. Good or Bad. You’re either first or you’re last. Left or right. You’re either with us or against us. My way or the highway — this is the general nature of partisan political rhetoric, and in election season it can quickly become a race to the bottom. Let’s take a look at a few key events over the past two weeks, but also take a lesson in telling the difference between the brisket and the baloney.
On Jan. 12, two small U.S. Navy boats drifted into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf following a mechanical issue. The high-speed, low armor-crafted vessels were halted and disarmed by the Iran Revolutionary Guard forces. The sailors were detained for a total of 14 hours, with a diplomatic dialogue open throughout the entire process between Iran and the U.S. No one was harmed or injured in the process, though the Iranian officials broadcasted footage of the detainment including a U.S. sailor reading a statement that included an apology for crossing into Iranian territory. This news event, and the status of Iran-US relations will be the central illustration to look at some formulaic reactions.
The degree of partisanship in a country’s politics can vary depending on a number of factors. I will exclude the effect of lobbying of the political donor class for my purposes today, but also say that it is important to look at who financially supports a politician when looking at what they do. A common tie that binds, at least in representational democracies, is that partisanship reacts to how much a representative’s constituency will reward it.
I would hasten to say that there are many structural ways the U.S. government is pushed toward political partisanship. There’s gerrymandered electoral districts where the constituent base leans left or right so much that it almost guarantees a party an election win. This does not encourage a legislator to reach across the aisle to seek broader appeal. In the Presidential nomination process, particularly the Republican race because of the bigger field, you have a structure where primary voters for the nomination differ politically from the majority of the overall electorate. There’s a fight for media attention and debate minutes, while also needing to appeal to a different constituency before the general election. The nominee is faced with pivoting back to the middle or doubling down. The amount of dissection in the 24-hour news environment is also a contributing factor, when daily actions or statements are looked at through a winning/losing or “political points” lens. Partisanship is then encouraged as the actors know there are always political points up for grabs, and that to stand out they need to show or state they are “the most” or “the best” on an issue.
The curves for how far someone can go to the left or right on an issue can vary right down to the individual, but there are enough examples to at least be illustrative. It can be thought of in terms of a law of diminishing returns that can also have negative returns (of voters) as positions staked along various issues.
The entrenched partisanship approach takes the view that your political opposition is wrong about everything which you disagree with, and that the results of anything they propose will be bad. It generally means not lauding the things you agree about or positions of theirs that you support. For example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was criticized for praising President Obama for the coordination of federal aid given to his state following Hurricane Sandy. It explains why there is very little conciliation toward President Obama, John Kerry, and the State Department’s diplomacy with Iran.
Relations between Washington and Tehran have warmed significantly under the Obama administration. Since 1979, Iran has been extremely adversarial with the United States. We won’t get lost in the historical baggage, but relative to the past, getting the nuclear deal signed, having the detained sailors released unharmed in less than a day, and the release of Jason Rezaian and other jailed Americans is a positive sign. From the Iranian perspective, the sanctions relief is viewed as a victory, though not without some opportunity cost to what they conceded in the nuclear agreement. In Iranian politics, coziness to the West has a political price, though it looks as though it has reached the tipping point where the government wants the benefits of better relations more. However, it is not politically acceptable for many Republican presidential nominees to say anything good about it.
Here’s how it’s done. You can break out the hindsight arguments: “the results of X were bad because I could have got a better result” — generally without specifics as to how they would have differed or as to why the results would have been measurably better. In the Navy-detainee case, politicians stated basically that under their leadership, Iran wouldn’t dare detain Americans, or that they would have responded with such military force that Iran would have somehow given them back sooner without escalation. Without robust evidence as to how and why, beware the phrase “lack of leadership”, because it is a message that sounds like it’s a good point, while in reality it is too ambiguous to ever be proven.
Another tactic is superlatives, saying you’re opponent has been the worst, or that you’re better or the best on issue X. In the context of Iran, or for that matter terrorism, candidates aspire to be seen as the toughest or that they would go to further lengths to stamp out America’s enemies. Part of the tendency towards superlatives comes from simpler messaging (“X Bad, Me most against X”). Nuanced responses to complex issues doesn’t make for good sound bites, and can be turned into criticism that your opponent is unprincipled. It is also used to imply that anything less than the hardest stance is bad or weak overall. It explains why it can be very difficult politically to loosen crime laws over fears they will be labeled weak on crime.
Over-generalizing someone’s position and applying it to even entirely different issues is another tactic. When you frame an issue as dichotomous (e.g. must be A or B) rather than something with nuance or pieces, you can morph a “Pro-A” position into “Anti-B” when they may not be the same thing. The White House policy with Iran right now is a very small portion of trust with a huge portion of verify. Those opposing the nuclear deal agreement have much less trust, if any, for Iran. The story is then framed as the White House being Pro-Iran (and further to that, anti-America). A great example of this tactic is Pro-Life versus Pro-Choice, where both sides do the same trick. Pro-Lifers frame Pro-choice as Pro-Abortion, and Pro-choice supporters frame Pro-Lifers as Anti-Woman. Another example is those who press for bans on Shari’a Law — that not specifically supporting their ban proposal is somehow pro-Shari’a. It doesn’t compute that unconstitutional laws don’t need to be specifically banned in order to prevent their implementation.
The strawman, another tool, is basically using a counter-example, implying that its existence completely disproves the other side’s argument. It ignores that there are often trade-offs to decisions, and implies that somehow any bad result negates the benefits in other areas. Iran abolished thousands of centrifuges, but because of the release of previously-seized money to Tehran, the nuclear deal was criticized as a complete failure or as a disaster. It makes the assumption that a negotiation will result in complete victory to one side. Look at how San Bernadino was morphed from a failure to prevent a terror attack into the conclusion that the Obama administration is actively endangering Americans. An instance of failure is not complete failure. It’s taking a position that no result would be considered good enough — that sub-optimal cannot still be considered good overall.