US President Barack Obama told a gathering of military veterans Tuesday that hardheaded diplomacy with Iran could avoid the type of “unnecessary wars” for which they have personally paid the price, and compared those who oppose the deal to hawks who supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
A steely Obama traveled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he urged the 1.9 million member Veterans of Foreign Wars to give the nuclear deal with Tehran a chance.
He denounced those “chest beating” against the deal and said some of those opposed to it were the same ones who had pushed for the US-led invasion of Iraq.
“Some of the same politicians and pundits that are so quick to reject the possibility of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program are the same folks who were so quick to go to war in Iraq, and said it would take a few months,” he said. “And we know the consequences of that choice and what it cost us in blood and treasure.”
“There is a smarter, more responsible way to protect our national security,” Obama said.
The comments were a subtle echo of criticism leveled by US Secretary of State John Kerry in February against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he said had cheerleaded the Iraq war.
“The prime minister was profoundly forward-leaning and outspoken about the importance of invading Iraq,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the time, in an apparent attempt to delegitimatize Netanyahu’s evaluation of the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program.
Netanyahu “may have a judgment that just may not be correct here,” Kerry said.
In 2002, as a private citizen, Netanyahu sounded the alarm on Iraqi WMDs during a talk to a Congressional committee.
Kerry, then a senator, voted in favor of the US invasion of Iraq on October 11, 2002.
The Israeli leader has called the Iran deal a monumental mistake and asserted that it severely weakens Israel’s security, strengthens Iran and contradicts Obama’s stated goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“We’re repeatedly told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal,” Netanyahu said Tuesday. “Yet today we are told that the whole world supports this bad deal. Well, that’s just not true. Israel and many Arab states oppose this deal. And in any case sometimes the entire world can be wrong.”
Last week, Kerry called Netanyahu’s criticism of the new deal “way over the top.”
Netanyahu met with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter Tuesday morning, though the two declined to hold a press conference or release a statement on their meeting.
A Carter aide who attended the talks in Jerusalem later told reporters that Netanyahu bluntly expressed his opposition to the Iran deal but did not get angry or upset with Carter. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss specifics of a closed meeting.
Netanyahu made the same arguments against the deal that he has expressed publicly numerous times since the agreement was announced earlier this month, the aide said, including his view that Iran will use money freed up by the removal of international economic sanctions to accelerate its support for proxies like the Lebanese Hezbollah that threaten Israel.
Carter countered with the US view that Iran is likely to be compelled to use much of its windfall to fix a badly damaged economy.
The US official said neither Carter nor Netanyahu raised the issue of potential US compensation to Israel in the form of increased defense assistance to counter Iran-related threats.
During remarks to US, French, Belgian, British, Jordanian and other international troops at an air base in Jordan, Carter mentioned that Netanyahu had been blunt behind closed doors.
“The prime minister made it quite clear that he disagreed with us with respect to the nuclear deal in Iran,” Carter said. “But friends can disagree.”
Telling the veterans he was no peacenik afraid to deploy the military, Obama boasted about a string of military operations that took high-ranking Al-Qaeda officials — including Osama bin Laden — off the battlefield.
“If you target Americans you will have no safe haven,” he said.
But, he added, “real leadership” means not being afraid to negotiate.
Obama has framed the recent nuclear deal as a choice between diplomacy and war.
While campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Obama told a battle-weary nation he would end the long and bloody conflict in Iraq as president made winding down the wars there and Afghanistan a priority.
The Iran deal is seen as a cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy legacy, and the White House has been selling it at home since the historic agreement was reached last week in Vienna between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration rolled out a Twitter feed and website that White House spokesman Josh Earnest said will be used to “distribute facts, engage online audiences and be used as a forum by those involved in negotiating the agreement.”
Veterans in crisis
Obama also paid tribute to five US troops killed in Chattanooga, Tennessee after an attack Thursday on two military centers by a 24-year-old gunman, Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez.
The president also tackled a multi-year crisis in the Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs a network of hospitals for veterans.
An inspector general report a year ago found “systemic” problems in health care for former combatants, with up to 40 veterans dying while waiting for treatment in Phoenix alone.
On the back of exposés about overcrowding and poor standards in military hospitals, the scandal cost Obama’s fellow Hawaiian and former army chief of staff Eric Shinseki his job as secretary of the agency.
Former army officer and Procter & Gamble chief executive Robert McDonald replaced Shinseki after receiving unanimous approval from the Senate.
But the VA was recently rocked again with news that it faces a massive budget shortfall.