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Furious Republican opposition to a deal over Iran’s nuclear program may look like another example of political partisanship and personal animosity toward Barack Obama. But there’s also a much deeper reason for congressional pushback: the deeply ingrained aversion in American culture toward parleying with ‘evil’ opponents.
Negotiating with international adversaries is more controversial in the United States than in most advanced democracies. Whereas in other countries bargaining is often seen as the norm, Americans frequently view face-to-face talks as a prize that the opponent has to earn through good behavior. The United States is part of a coalition of six countries talking to Iran, alongside Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany. But the United States is the only country where the deal has generated a domestic political storm.
Resistance to an agreement with Iran is part of a long history of American skepticism about engaging with adversaries. During the early years of the Vietnam War, France, Britain, Canada, and the UN secretary general all entreated the United States to negotiate an end to the conflict—but Washington refused to entertain any settlement short of North Vietnam’s surrender.
More recently, in the 1990s, Republicans assailed President Bill Clinton’s efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea, with Senator John McCain calling the process tantamount to “appeasement.”
In 2003, when Iraq began spiraling into chaos, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz received a memo suggesting that the United States engage disaffected Sunnis. He reportedly returned it with three words scribbled in the margin: “They are Nazis!”
In 2008, President George W. Bush told the Israeli Knesset, “Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the…