The contentious debate continues over whether our president's nuclear deal with Iran's mullahs offers the world its best chance for peace -- or is sure to lead to war. Or will it lead to some murky mix of the two, much like the period between the two world wars?
History doesn't repeat itself, it's been said, but it rhymes. And the past remains as debatable as the future, as any historian well knows. Where is Gentle Reader to look for guidance when the guideposts point in different directions? And the peacemakers can be hard to tell from the warmongers.
Talk about what the Israelis call an existential choice as they face the prospect of an Iran with its own Bomb and the means to deliver it. You pays your money and you takes your choice of conflicting counsels. For example:
"It is a very good deal. ... It would be good for the United States. It would be good for a region that has known too much conflict. It would be good for the world. ... (I)t achieves one of our most critical security objectives. This is the strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some form of war. ... (A)nd military action would be far less effective than this deal." --Barack Obama.
But this pact with Iran is an "historic mistake," according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who warns that it would make it easier, not harder, for Iran to get its own Bomb, with all that would mean for his region and the world.
Looking for other conflicting counsels? Here's a small selection:
"My good friends, I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep." --Neville Chamberlain
"I'd bet they're asleep in New York. I'd bet they're asleep all over America." --Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, owner and proprietor of Rick's Cafe Americain in the classic movie "Casablanca"
"Peace is our profession." --Motto of the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War as it kept the Strategic Air Command's bombers in flight day and night to guard against any attack
And finally: "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God." --Sermon on the Mount
But who are the peacemakers -- those who would appease tyrants who threaten to annihilate their neighbors, or those who say the best way to guard the peace is to prepare for war, and never yield to an aggressor's threats?
Did another American president -- Woodrow Wilson -- have the right idea when he staked his all on the dream of a League of Nations that would safeguard world peace? He struck out for Paris without consulting the opposition at home, determined to negotiate a peace treaty on his own, such was his blind confidence in his own idealism and complete contempt for his critics. (Remind you of anyone?)
Wilsonian idealism seemed to be working -- right up to the moment it didn't, and the next world war erupted after two decades of intermittent crises.
By then the American people had grown sick of idealistic leaders and had chosen an ordinary politician as president -- Warren G. Harding -- who promised not nostrums but normalcy, and soon had his own diplomatic achievements to show for it. Like the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which established a balance of power that kept an unsteady peace for almost two decades.
A different and far-seeing president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, could see the war clouds gathering year by year -- and knew the country wasn't willing to face the gathering storm. His conclusion: He knew he had to prepare American public opinion for war step by step.
Was FDR being duplicitous or practicing statesmanship? For there are times when a statesman must rise above candor in order to lead. Sincerity can be treacherous when it comes to diplomacy, even if our current president seems to mean every tricky word he says.
Lest we forget, it isn't always popular to champion peace. Gruff old John Adams withstood all the cries for war during his brief administration, earning an honored place in American history. His successor as president, Thomas Jefferson, embargoed trade with both France and England to keep the peace. It didn't work. He wound up setting the stage for the War of 1812.
Abraham Lincoln's secretary of state, Henry Seward, would suggest declaring war on both the French and the English as a last, desperate measure to unite the Union as it was coming apart. Mr. Lincoln turned down the idea. Or as he put it, "One war at a time, Mr. Seward."
Here's what may be the only sure guide to war and peace amid this welter of conflicting counsels: Circumstances alter cases. And alter principles. What may have been far-seeing statesmanship in 1800 might court disaster in 2015.
Who will prove the peacemaker and who the warmonger now, the president or his critics, as this debate about a nuclear pact with Iran continues? That's a question each citizen of a republic must answer for himself in a free society. And the answer may depend on whether this nation, and this world, remains free.