Sunday, September 27, 2015

Francis Goes to Washington: A Call to Serve the Common Good

Politics is . . . an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. – Pope Francis, September 24, 2015.
Pope Francis has come to America and he has not disappointed. His inspirational words and gestures of compassion, his genuine humility and the elegant simplicity of his presence, have allowed him to give witness to a broken and divided world. Although he is the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, there is something about this Pope that appeals instinctively to non-Catholics, to Protestants and Jews, to the unaffiliated, even to non-believers. His voice is one of reasoned wisdom, a refreshing and eloquent call to the real and pressing issues of our time. He speaks with a moral clarity often lacking in religious and political leaders today; and he leads by example, living simply and acting compassionately, as he reminds us that love, forgiveness, grace and understanding, not judgment and condemnation, are at the heart of the Gospel message. His words resonate with an authenticity and an ethical consistency of significance to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

On Thursday, when Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress, I set aside the hour to watch and listen. Revered as the Vicar of Christ by a quarter of the world’s population, here was the Pope of the Holy See addressing the Congress of the United States for the first time in history. He spoke with the familiar tone of a gentle pastor and was, for a day, the nation’s most influential teacher, a wise sage holding forth in the halls of power. As he slowly articulated his words in English as Members of Congress, the Cabinet, and the Supreme Court politely listened, Francis encouraged and prodded, advocating civility, a unity of purpose, and a concern for all of God’s children and the environment we inhabit. For an hour on Thursday morning, I was filled with the hope that perhaps this one man could change the negative dynamic that is Washington politics today.

Francis called upon our legislators to do what is their basic responsibility – to care for those they serve. He spoke of a shared responsibility to “defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.” He invoked the image of Moses adorning the walls of the Congressional chamber as a symbol of “the transcendent dignity of the human being” and “the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

Francis reminded us of our common humanity and the need to care for all members of the human race. He implored the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – on refugees, immigration, the poor, and the environment. This son of immigrants reminded Americans of our immigrant roots, for we and our families were at one time strangers in a sometimes unwelcoming land. Historically, said Francis, the rights of those who made their way to America were not always respected, and many were treated badly. But “when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.” Today’s refugees and immigrants simply desire “a better life for themselves and for their loved ones. . . . Is this not what we want for our own children?” The numbers of people seeking refuge may be daunting, Francis said, but each number represents the face of a living, breathing human being; we must “view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories.”

Francis noted that we live in a world full of “violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion” – implicit references to the brutality of ISIS and to acts of terror by radical Islamists. But he reminded us once again that “no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism” and that “we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism.”

I have frequently asserted in my writings and in everyday life that the world is not easily divided into black and white, that there is good and bad in almost everyone and every nation. The world is a complex mixture of many colors, of nuance and shades of grey. Thus, I was particularly heartened by the Pope’s words that we must “guard against the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world . . . demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.” For this humble servant of God, our response as a nation must be “one of hope and healing, of peace and justice.”

In this light, Francis’s words endorsed the President’s recent efforts to re-establish relations with Cuba and engage in dialogue with Iran, both of which have helped “overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past.” Dialogue and diplomacy is always better than militarism and conquest, he said, for diplomacy requires “courage and daring” and “a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”

While describing America as a land of dreams and a nation of promises, Francis comes from a broader, more global perspective. He understands and admires the American promise and singled out four historically significant Americans who sought through words and deeds to make us better. Two of them needed little explanation: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, who Francis cited as representing America’s progression to a liberty grounded in pluralism and equality for all. He also highlighted two lesser known Americans, Catholic pacifists who devoted their lives to the betterment of humankind: Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and radical activist for better working conditions and the rights of the poor; and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and student of comparative religion who authored more than 70 books of poetry, spirituality, social justice and peace.

“A nation can be considered great,” Francis said, “when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.” In highlighting “[t]hree sons and a daughter of this land” as an embodiment of service and compassion, Francis appealed to America’s history of social reform and political activism, for each devoted his or her life to making America a better, more perfect union.

As I wrote about this Pope in January 2014 (“Bringing it All Back Home: Pope Francis and a Return to Compassion”), there is really nothing new in Francis’s emphasis on love, justice, and compassion for all. It is the essence of a faith that has been overshadowed by the more judgmental and, in my view, deeply misguided expressions of conservative and fundamentalist versions of Christianity that have dominated American public life for the past thirty-five years. I am grateful for this Pope’s efforts to reemphasize the message and shift priorities in a more compassionate, forgiving, and less judgmental direction.

In the words of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “the task of the human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God.” Francis’s words express the same sentiment, and their political implications are unambiguous: the face of every human being is the face of God; to injure another human being, to lack care and compassion for another, to do harm to the planet for the sake of profit and greed – these are transgressions against the Creator. “Whatever I do to man, I do to God,” Heschel explained. “When I hurt a human being, I injure God.”

For Francis, this enduring concept is inspirational and obligatory; to see the face of God in every human being and to treat the Earth and nature as God’s precious creations should inform our everyday lives as citizens and serve as a mission statement for those in power. To serve the common good thus demands that we care for and protect our “common home” and engage in the proper “use of natural resources.” This requires “a courageous and responsible effort . . . to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity” for which the nation's policymakers have an important role to play. Although Francis shied away from specific policy prescriptions, attached to his words are clear public policy implications:
Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology, to devise intelligent ways of developing and limiting our power, and to put technology at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.
As a nation we have much work left to do. It can start with members of Congress working together in meaningful ways to address our most pressing needs and concerns. To talk of shutting down the government once again, as are certain members of Congress; to deny the human effects of climate change as an excuse for inaction on our over reliance on fossil fuels, as several right-wing Republicans continually do; to talk of erecting huge walls to keep people out and to call for mass deportations, as Donald Trump and others have loudly and cynically proclaimed, are not the words of responsible, caring, and compassionate leaders. We need political leaders who believe that for the promise of America to succeed, we must do the hard work of diplomacy and peace, take care of our most vulnerable citizens, repair our public infrastructure, educate our children, and allocate our resources in meaningful and responsible ways. We need leaders who will, as Pope Francis does, bring out the best in us as people, as a nation, and as a beacon of light to the world.

Pope Francis came to America this week and offered us a lesson in compassion, witness and responsibility. Immediately after Francis addressed Congress, he went to a local shelter and fed the homeless. The Pope spoke truth to power and then broke bread with the powerless. In his address to Congress, he challenged the most powerful and richest nation on earth to break its cycle of political dysfunction and paralysis. He heightened the national conversation, urging Congress to work cooperatively to restore a planet torn by hatred, greed, poverty, and environmental degradation. Let us hope that our leaders have listened with an open mind and a willing heart. Can this humble man of simplicity and justice turn the tide of our divisiveness and despair? Or will Congress and our political system revert to obstructionism and division by refusing to advance the common good?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Will America Welcome the Stranger and Be a Light Unto the Nations?

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
--Emma Lazarus (The Statue of Liberty)

As a father, I was deeply moved by the images of Aylan Kurdi, a three year-old boy who washed ashore after drowning in the Mediterranean Sea during his family's failed attempt to escape the Syrian civil war. Aylan's mother and four-year old brother also drowned on their journey in search of safety, security, and the dreams of a better life. The faces of the men, women, and children I see on the nightly news, arriving on the shores of Greece and Turkey in rubber boats, or walking along the railroad tracks of Hungary, are heartbreaking. “All over Europe and the Mediterranean world, barriers are being breached,” write the editors of The Nation. “[T]he natural and man-made barriers of fear and grief that keep people from fleeing war or poverty until they have no choice; the barriers of indifference that enable the rest of us to get on with our lives as if those men, women, and children were no concern of ours.”

As a nation, as individuals, as empathetic human beings, we cannot simply sit and do nothing. History has taught us otherwise.

In July 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt convened a conference at Evian, France, in the hope of convincing our allies and friends in the international community to accept large numbers of Jewish émigrés desperately seeking refuge from Hitler’s Germany. In cooperation with Rabbi Stephen Wise, his friend and close confidant, Roosevelt had advanced an ambitious proposal to ease the plight of refugees by spreading the burden to friendly nations across the globe. Although delegates from 32 countries attended, the conference was a huge disappointment. Only the Dominican Republic offered to admit significant numbers of refugees. With a deep global recession lingering, convincing Americans and the world to welcome hundreds of thousands of foreigners was a hard sell.

At Evian, Roosevelt discovered that the resistance of world leaders to assuming responsibility for resettling refugees resembled the opposition he faced on the home front. Back in the United States, Roosevelt contended with stringent immigration quotas, an isolationist Congress, the anti-immigrant sentiments of organized labor, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and a nation weary of engagement with the world. Many of our friends and allies were equally ungenerous. As described by American University Professors Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman in FDR and the Jews (Harvard University Press, 2013):
Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama stated that they wanted no traders or intellectuals, code words for Jews. Argentina said it had already accommodated enough immigrants from Central Europe. Canada cited its unemployment problem. Australia said that it had no “racial problems” and did not want to create any by bringing in Jewish refugees. Imperial countries such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands said that their tropical territories offered only limited prospects for European refugees. League of Nations High Commissioner Sir Neill Malcom was openly hostile to the idea of a new refugee organization. . . . The Washington Post headlined one story on the conference, “YES, BUT ---” [and] noted . . . “that delegates take the floor to say, ‘We feel sorry for the refugees and potential refugees, but---.’”
Many asked why other countries should absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees when the United States and Britain failed to do so. It was a question without a good answer.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., after Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and following the Kristallnacht pogroms in November of that year, the nations of Western Europe and the Americas feared an influx of refugees. By the summer of 1939, 309,000 Jewish refugees had applied for visas in the United States, but existing immigration quotas allowed for only 27,000 (1939 was the first year the United States attempted even to fill the quota for German and Austrian Jews). Some Jews found refuge in Great Britain and Palestine, though Britain actively blocked much Jewish emigration to Palestine. Still others fled to Central and South America. In the end, six million Jews perished in the Holocaust along with millions of other dissidents and “undesirables.” Although Nazi fascism was eventually defeated, when given the opportunity, the international community failed to act with the compassion and urgency needed to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Four million migrants and refugees have so far fled the bombs of Assad and the brutality of ISIS. The countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are overwhelmed with migrants, with Jordan and Lebanon having absorbed numbers approaching 20% - 25% of their respective populations. Despite the efforts of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and international aid organizations, there is a tremendous shortage of food, water, shelter, and medical care. The conditions of the refugee camps in these bordering countries are unsustainable. Something must be done.

President Obama announced that the United States, which to date has admitted only 1,500 Syrian refugees (out of 4 million), will admit 10,000 more, though with no easing of administrative and bureaucratic restrictions that typically require two years of paperwork before a family can be admitted. This is pathetic. I tip my hat to the people of Germany, Sweden, and Iceland, where extraordinary efforts are underway to ease the plight of refugees, to offer shelter and a welcome mat to people in need, and to reconcile differing cultures and religions in ways that offer hope and optimism for the future.

Leadership requires the ability to appeal to the best in people, to inspire individuals, churches, and institutions to act for the broader good. “We need to decide right now what kind of Europe we are going to be,” said Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. “My Europe takes in refugees. My Europe doesn’t build walls.” Sweden’s employment minister, Ylva Johansson added, “To feel empathy with the suffering of another person, a person who is not like ourselves, is part of being human.”

We can debate forever whether American foreign policy in Syria and the Middle East is partly to blame for the current crisis, whether we should have intervened militarily against Bashar al-Assad, or provided more support to the rebel movements, or sent ground troops to fight ISIS – none of which, in my opinion, would have been feasible or productive. There are few good military options in Syria (though a no-fly zone would help). However one resolves those issues, it is the responsibility of this country and the nations of Europe – and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, among others – to welcome and shelter people whose only crime is seeking safety and security for their families. The refugees need medicine, blankets, and food; they also need human warmth and compassion, people who will listen to them and grant them dignity and respect.

The people of Iceland who volunteered to pay for the flights of Syrian refugees and provided temporary shelter in their homes have set the high water mark for this crisis. Thousands have responded to the slogan, “Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.” It is encouraging to find idealism alive and well in one small corner of the world.

Germany and Sweden are also showing the world what it means to take seriously the obligations of privilege and wealth. Germany will accept 800,000 migrants this year alone, an astonishing figure that should set a moral example for the rest of us. The German people who have welcomed Syrians with flowers and food and hospitality can teach all of us what it means to respond to a humanitarian crisis. Sweden’s efforts, though smaller in total numbers, are even more impressive in light of the proportional burden that small country has accepted.

Assimilating refugees is difficult and complex. It can strain a nation’s economy and requires the acceptance and absorption of people with different cultural and religious practices, languages and values. It is true that we cannot save everyone and we cannot solve all of the world’s problems. But we can and should do more, much more, to stem the tide of human suffering and despair. As the most powerful and prosperous country on earth, we should follow the lead of the Germans, Swedes, and Icelanders in welcoming the stranger and offering hope and shelter to the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

I know we live in cynical times. I can think of a hundred excuses for why we cannot or will not open our borders to Syrian families in need of a helping hand. We don’t know these people, it will cost too much, and it will be too difficult; where will they stay, and work, and go to school? Practical concerns always obstruct the feasibility of compassionate idealism. But “without idealists there would be no optimism,” American author Alisa Steinberg has written, “and without optimism there would be no courage to achieve advances that so-called realists would have you believe could never come to fruition.”

The humanitarian crisis that is Syria today is a stark reminder of the world’s failure to come to the aid of Jewish refugees during the Second World War. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, once a refugee herself, suggested that the political refugee, more than any other human being, exposes a society’s actual devotion to human rights; the wandering refugee has no legal status, no home, no state, nothing "except that they [are] still human." In the 1930’s and 1940’s, when confronted with millions of potential refugees, Europe and America offered insufficient refuge. We say never again, but do we mean it?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Waters of Memory

Not far downstream was a dry channel where the river had run once, and part of the way to come to know a thing is through its death. But years ago I had known the river when it flowed through this now dry channel, so I could enliven its stony remains with the waters of memory. – Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
Hannah and I journeyed to Phillipsburg, New Jersey, this past Sunday to visit my father’s gravesite. Hannah was studying abroad in Israel when my father died four months ago and she wanted to visit Dad’s resting place before summer passed us by. On a beautiful, sun-filled afternoon, we drove through scenic Bucks County along the Delaware River as we listened to a recording of Dad’s funeral service from North Carolina. Dad was a city boy who grew to love the country, so it was particularly fitting to listen to eulogies and remembrances of my father while driving along a stretch of land he loved and admired.

We passed through the quaint towns and tree-lined thoroughfares of northeastern Pennsylvania and admired the lush green countryside, the classic red barns, the rivers and streams that wind their way through this wondrous land. Crossing the river into northwestern New Jersey, we ascended the rolling hills of historic Phillipsburg, where I was mysteriously comforted by the familiarity and memories of a quiet little town I never really knew.

I was only two years old when my family left Phillipsburg, so the bulk of my memories of this place are based on the remembrances of others, photographs, and visits here later in life. And yet, I felt a strong sense of belonging as we drove through the town’s quiet streets and approached St. James Lutheran Church, where my father was pastor for eight years following his graduation from seminary. An historic church dating to the early 1700’s – one of its first pastors was J. Peter Muhlenberg – it is known as the “Old Straw Church” for its early days (before the current church building was constructed in 1834) when it sat in the midst of local farms and the rural surroundings of a less industrial time and place. Today, the church sits on a tiny stretch of land surrounded by highways, a lonely island of contemplation sandwiched between thoroughfares lined with fast food joints and retail outlets, an isolated outcast of spirituality amidst an American cacophony of development.

The church’s old cemetery sits across the street, its collection of head stones and gravesites dating back to the 18th century. There is something both odd and comforting about seeing your surname on a head stone, a reference to The Rev. Edwin L. Ehlers, “1929 – 2015, Devoted Husband, Father, Pastor,” as if Dad is there watching through the gentle breeze. The rational side of me knows otherwise, but the spiritual side, the person of faith that refuses to let go despite the noise and distractions of everyday life, senses his presence. I am comforted by the thought that Dad is there with us, watching over us with a gentle smile.

The void left by my father’s passing has forced me to examine the narrative of my life, the plot points that explain who I am. A presence I had taken for granted – Saturday phone calls and twice yearly visits – are missing now, filled by memories and photographs and stories of days forever lost. I try to think of the stories my Dad shared with us over the years, of places and people he had encountered along the way. Like the day he saw Jackie Robinson play his first minor league game in Jersey City in 1946 or when he jumped for joy in 1951 after Bobby Thompson’s home run won the pennant for the New York Giants on the final day of the season. Or tales of sadder times, such as the moment he learned his brother had been shot from the skies over Austria in 1945. His life as a Lutheran pastor offered stories of joy and sadness, growth and heartbreak, from the many people and families he counseled and comforted along the way.

Stories are a fundamental part of being human and help us make sense of the world around us. In truth, my Dad was not a storyteller in the traditional sense, though he offered anecdotes of life-shaping moments whenever they proved instructive or helpful to others. The “stories of life are often more like rivers than books,” wrote Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It. They flow under and around us, quietly carving and shaping our lives and the memories we hold dear.

I wish I remembered more clearly the stories and anecdotes my father told throughout his life, or recalled some of his Sunday morning sermons. I wish we had played more golf or taken more walks together. Maybe then I would have better remembered the wisdom and insight he offered along the way.

The anecdotes of life – the humorous moments, the challenges confronted and lessons learned from the mistakes and experiences of our lives and the lives of others – are what guide us and help us place in context the narrative arc of our own existence. If we could place time in a bottle, we would have less need for memories and less regret for wasted days. For now, I must content myself with the meaningful memories of my past and hopeful longings for the future, for my children, and whatever years I have left on this earth.

In Loud and Clear (Random House, 2004), author and columnist Anna Quindlen writes of her regrets, after her children had grown, of not living in the moment when they were younger. “This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs,” she writes. She looks at an old photograph of her three young children “sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day . . . And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in a hurry to get on to the next things: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.” 

As life passes by ever so swiftly, as I look down at my father’s gravesite while standing with my youngest daughter, now a senior in college, I feel the same regrets so eloquently expressed by Anna Quindlen. Like the waters of a flowing stream and the whispers of a gentle breeze, we remember, we live, and we move on. For in the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The heart, like the mind, has a memory. And in it are kept the most precious keepsakes.”

Let us be silent, that we may hear the whisper of God.
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Vienna Agreement: A Victory for Diplomacy

Our differences are real, and the difficult history between our nations cannot be ignored. But it is possible to change. The path of violence and rigid ideology, a foreign policy based on threats to attack your neighbors or eradicate Israel – that’s a dead end. A different path, one of tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflict, leads to more integration into the global economy, more engagement with the international community, and the ability of the Iranian people to prosper and thrive. – President Barack Obama, July 14, 2015
For most of my life the world has been divided between hawks and doves, between those who believe superior force and military power are the only means to achieve a desired goal, and those who believe negotiation and compromise are essential to genuine peace and understanding. Hawks love to throw out terms like appeasement and capitulation whenever anything less than complete surrender is achieved, while doves believe that one-sided victories are mostly an illusion and are achieved, if at all, at extreme costs in blood and treasure.

In affairs of state, leaders of great nations must balance and weigh competing interests, assess risks, consider short-term gains and long-term objectives, examine past history and project future behavior. There is no pre-determined road map to resolving difficult conflicts. The noise of the chattering class, of media outlets and opinion makers, of politicians and pundits, must not be allowed to distract from the actual work being done by our diplomats and Foreign Service Officers around the world. A good leader must remain focused at all times on two key questions: What outcome is in the best interests of our nation? What result will make the world safer and more peaceful?

Ideology and political division often cloud the true nature of international complexities. In 1964, Richard Nixon declared on a trip to Asia that “it would be disastrous to the cause of freedom” for the United States to recognize Red China. It was a nice talking point. But eight years later, as President, when the interests of the nation and future prospects of world peace were more directly in his hands, Nixon changed course and restored diplomatic relations with China. The non-governing ideologues that opposed this move predicted doom and gloom. They believed China and communism must be defeated at all costs and that to “engage” with the Chinese would only legitimize and strengthen them.

More than four decades later, China and the world have been transformed for the better. China is not a model of democracy and liberty, but it is a legitimate member of the world of nations and the reform elements in that country have made gradual strides in loosening the oppressive nature of Chinese society. Through trade, academic exchanges, and diplomacy, China has become more open, a genuine trading partner, and a country the West can deal with. The world today is a better and safer place because of our willingness to engage in diplomacy with the Chinese, to trade with them, talk to them, and exert our influence through the positive forces of economics, art, technology, and social exchange.

Similarly, the arms control agreements between the United States and the former Soviet Union, including those entered into by Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s, made the world safer and helped transform relations between two of the world’s most formidable adversaries. Although mutual suspicion and hostility remain, the degree of cooperation and engagement between the United States and Russia on a host of issues is a source of hope after fifty years of Cold War hostility and a policy of mutually assured destruction.

I have been thinking of these things lately as I have reviewed the parameters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program (“the Vienna agreement”), that was reached earlier this month between Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany). No deal is perfect and this one does not contain everything I would have liked. But I am persuaded that implementation of the Vienna agreement is in the long-term interests of the United States, our European allies, Israel and the nations of the Middle East.

The agreement should be assessed on what it aims to do – prevent Iran from obtaining or developing a nuclear weapon. The agreement requires a substantial rollback of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities, reduces Iran’s nuclear (low-enriched uranium) stockpile by 98 percent, limits Iran’s ability to research and develop nuclear weapons, stops all uranium enrichment activities at Iran’s deep underground facility at Fordow, and disables Iran’s ability to produce bomb-grade plutonium at Iran’s only heavy-water reactor at Arak. The agreement imposes a stringent system of inspections and monitoring that allows for on-site inspections and installation of the most advanced surveillance technology. Meanwhile, Iran remains a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is permanently subject to its requirements. The Vienna agreement is a responsible first step to peacefully and permanently stopping the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and the Republicans running for president contend that the P5+1 partners should have insisted on a better deal. But these critics do not suggest what that better deal looks like or how we obtain it. Most of the critics seem to prefer no deal to the present one. But rejecting the present agreement and achieving no agreement would ensure only that Iran escalates its nuclear program and develops nuclear weapon capabilities. Threats of war simply lend support to Iranian hard-liners, who themselves oppose the deal.

Netanyahu believes we should continue the sanctions regime, or impose even greater sanctions, until Iran capitulates and agrees to entirely dismantle all nuclear capabilities, military and civilian. He also insists that any deal require Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist and stop supporting Hezbollah and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. That would be wonderful, but it is wishful, unrealistic thinking. It would be nice if the Iranians baked Bibi a delicious peach pie as well. But it was not going to happen during these negotiations. To have insisted on addressing and resolving issues unrelated to the Iranian nuclear program would have been a non-starter. And no one understands that fact better than Netanyahu.

Effective negotiation requires narrowly focused goals and objectives. Although America and its allies were united on the need for sanctions to pressure Iran to come to the bargaining table, no such consensus exists that Iran must refrain from developing a civilian nuclear energy program. In the absence of a deal, we would lose our ability to sustain the existing sanctions regime, for the sanctions have not only hurt Iran’s economy, but have cost Japan, South Korea, Europe, India, Russia and China billions of dollars in trade and commerce. These nations all have closer trade ties with Iran and will not accede to continued sanctions, especially if America walks away from an agreement that Iran is willing to sign and which accomplishes most of the objectives initially sought by the West.

What the Vienna agreement does is to greatly reduce Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities. It prevents the design and construction of any new facilities for fifteen years and extends the time it would theoretically take for Iran to acquire enough fissile materials to create a single nuclear weapon from the existing two to three months to at least one year. The agreement does not trust the Iranians to comply, but imposes strict inspection and transparency measures. Respected nuclear experts and inspectors with years of experience who have examined the deal agree it is the most intensive inspections regime in history. The agreement requires the International Atomic Energy Agency to strictly monitor Iran’s nuclear program at every level, including mining, procurement, production, and enrichment. By enabling the international community to verify compliance at every stage of the nuclear supply chain, it ensures that we can effectively detect, deter, and prevent cheating.

The deal does not address the long list of grievances Americans and others have with Iran, but is instead designed only to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear weapons club. Although the agreement has the potential to reform and improve relations between Iran and the West and to transform the Middle East, no one is counting on it.

The administration and the other P5+1 partners have taken a practical and common sense position that strongly increases the likelihood that Iran will not obtain a nuclear capability, while allowing Iran an opportunity to shed its isolated status and to re-engage with the world community in business and commerce and other ways mutually beneficial. If Iran is stupid enough to cheat, the United States retains all options, from re-imposing sanctions to the use of military force. Those options will always remain in our arsenal.

The hard-liners in Iran are invested in the status quo and fear this deal for all of the reasons the reformers have praised it. Those within Iran who would most benefit from international legitimacy and improved relations with the West, Iranian citizens who engage in business and commerce and look favorably upon western democracies, may help eventually change how Iranians think about the costs and benefits of the regime’s destabilizing activities and regional trouble making.

As Roger Cohen of The New York Times contends, the Iran nuclear deal “must be judged on what it set out to do – stop Iran going nuclear – not on whether Iran has a likable regime (it does not) or does bad things (it does).” The deal is an impressive American diplomatic achievement that “increases the distance between Iran and a bomb as it reduces the distance between Iran and the world.” The accord essentially forces America and Iran into a relationship. As Cohen notes:
Iran is finely poised between a tough old guard forged in revolution and its aspirational, Westward-looking youth. A decade is a long time in societies in transition. It is far better to have deep American-Iranian differences – over Hezbollah, over Syria, over regional Shiite irredentism, over Iran’s vile anti-Israel outbursts – addressed through dialogue rather than have Iran do its worst as pariah.
If recent history is any guide, we should remember the state of our relations with the former Soviet Union and China during the height of the Cold War. Presidents Nixon and Reagan moved boldly with hostile and far more dangerous regimes in Beijing and Moscow. Despite much bellowing about the decline of American power, weakness and appeasement, our engagement with those long-time enemies proved transformational for bilateral relations and the world at large.

There will always be voices – chest-thumping American hardliners – who think negotiation is a sign of weakness and that military force is decisive in a way that diplomacy is not. It is an attractive position for politicians in search of cheap ways to appear tough. But it ignores the hard work of peace and non-proliferation, the complexities of the real world, and the psychology of nation states mired in historic mistrust. The Vienna agreement presents an alternative vision of American power that stresses the importance of U.S. global leadership in addressing shared problems. Congress would be remiss if it recklessly condemns a deal that advances American interests and has the potential to reduce tensions in a part of the world that desperately needs it.

It is right to worry about the Iranians and the mischief they cause in the Middle East, its hostility to Israel, its support of Assad, and its proxy wars with Saudi Arabia. But isolating Iran and treating it as a pariah did little to discourage its bad behavior. While the Vienna agreement may not change Iranian behavior for the better, there are elements of hope. As a recent editorial in The Economist suggests, although the agreement enables Iran to become a more influential player in the Middle East,
…it will also lead the country to become more open. As in China, the Iranian theocracy rules over a population that long ago lost its revolutionary zeal. . . Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decided that being a pariah was worse for his regime than rejoining the world.  
That choice only makes sense if Iran can now attract trade and investment. The more Iran trades with the rest of the world, the more susceptible it will grow to international pressure. As the country becomes enmeshed in the global economy, interest groups will emerge within Iran’s complex, factional politics who will argue that the country’s future is better served by decent relations with foreigners than by bad ones. The more Iranians benefit from ties with the outside world, the stronger those moderating voices will become.
The Vienna agreement provides a modest glimmer of hope for a brighter future. With full membership in the international community comes implicit and subtle pressure to abide by certain norms. And although Iran will benefit economically, there will be opportunities for greater cooperation between Iran and the United States in the fight against ISIS and other regional stabilizing measures. The agreement proves that Iran and the West can coexist on terms of mutual respect, a notion that greatly undermines the position of Islamic terror organizations and strengthens reformers across the region.

But even if Iran does not shift course in an attempt to become a more responsible member of the world community, an Iran with no nuclear weapons and a greatly reduced enrichment capacity is far better than the alternative. The status quo, or no agreement, would almost guarantee that Iran has a nuclear weapon in the short term. There are no risk free options available to us. We can choose the path of diplomacy and engagement backed by strict compliance measures, or we can choose the path of bellicosity and war. The Vienna agreement is a victory for diplomacy, a better vision of foreign policy, and the hope for a brighter and safer future. If war is someday necessary, it will not be because we failed to give peace a chance.