Former President Obama and former Vice President Biden have been among the many Democrats who have long complimented former President George W. Bush for his demeanor and conduct after leaving office. That is, he did not attack his successors. He governed himself by a simple creed: I had my time, and now it is their time to govern.
What’s more, Bush understood that people who have just left office are in many ways in the worst position to evaluate the work of their successors—because they are not neutral and they are almost certain not to be fair. They are emotionally involved; they have reputations to defend. If they do criticize, they should do so with a great measure of emotional and psychological restraint.
This is not important because the former officials will look partisan, nasty, and egotistical; in a sense, who cares if people now out of power forever look foolish or petty. It is important because our political system works better when those who have held the highest offices in the land do not lower themselves into petty partisan or worse yet personal attacks.
That is why former Secretary of State John Kerry’s attack on President Trump and his Iran decision yesterday is worthy of note— and condemnation. In a logorrheic six-paragraph attack, Kerry used the following terms: “Dangerous, international crisis, endangers America’s national security interests, reckless, ego, ideology, game of chicken, destabilizing, closer to military conflict, adults in the room, polluted the negotiating waters, lacks common sense, lacks maturity.”
And then he said “I can’t think of a more important moment than this one where cooler, wiser voices have had a bigger responsibility.” Indeed—which is why his own attack reflects very poorly on him. His statement reflects neither cool nor wisdom, but rather emotion and ego. The very tone of his remarks undermined his argument, and fortified the criticism that he and President Obama were so determined to get an agreement that they were willing to accept uneven terms—better for Iran than for the United States. During the long negotiations, European diplomats on several occasions told me they shuddered when Iranian foreign minister Zarif went off alone with Kerry, for this often meant further American concessions. No European diplomat ever, in private, told me Kerry was a tough negotiator who outsmarted Zarif. The emotions visible in Kerry’s screed substantiate these criticisms.
The President’s decisions on the Iran nuclear deal may be wrong, though that is not my view. We do need a sensible, careful debate on what the JCPOA does, and fails to do, and what the Trump policy may achieve and may sacrifice. We do not need a series of nasty, emotional attacks on the President and his policy—especially from those individuals, to restate the point yet again, least likely to be able to make disinterested judgments.