For the last three weeks or so, liberal commentators have repeatedly insisted that the Obama administration bears little to no responsibility for the ever louder beating of the Iran war drums. Whatever such sounds the White House makes are just pre-election theater necessitated by Republican attacks, they say, or reflexive reassurance of the pro-Israel voting bloc as Israeli leaders deride the US stance as weak. The parallel assertion is that the Obama administration will never launch an attack on Iran and, in the meantime, is doing everything it can to quiet down the racket. This claim is then used to draw a contrast between the Iran war talk and the leadup to the 2003 Iraq war: The dastardly Bush administration ginned up the latter, while the Obama administration is resisting the former.
Sorry, but this line is nonsense -- or, to be more precise, it only makes sense in a world where the Iranian nuclear program magically ceases to be an issue after the 2012 presidential election.
The Obama-is-innocent argument has drawn considerable support from the statements of several officials, among them Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who said he doubts Iran has made the decision to construct a nuclear device, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has danced around the question of whether Israel will hit Iran soon, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, who said that Iran is a “rational actor” and not some band of mad mullahs who can’t be reasoned with.
The Republican presidential candidates are, of course, grossly irresponsible in their rhetoric. And the Israelis are clearly trying to goad the White House into noisier rattles of its own saber, if not an actual air strike.
But the game doesn’t stop after the election. Absent some diplomatic breakthrough, one that the war drums make less likely the louder they resound, Iran will still be enriching uranium. The US will still regard (unlimited) enrichment as “unacceptable” because it could give Iran the fissile material it needs for an atomic weapon. And a second Obama administration would not need to want war in order to accept the logic that it has no other choice. (In the improbable event of a Republican win in November, all bets are off.) Meanwhile, what the White House says and does (and does not say or do) matters a great deal in determining whether the escalating talk of war becomes actual escalation.
The president himself has now given an extensive interview to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in which he stresses that the US will “continue to apply pressure until Iran takes a different course” in its nuclear program. He clarifies that the oft-repeated phrase “all options are on the table” “includes a military component.” Obama says that if Israel were not clamoring on the sidelines, “It would still be a profound national security interest of the United States to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” due to non-proliferation concerns “in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions.” That is why it is not possible to contain a nuclear-armed Iran and why the thrust of his policy is, at the very least, to compel Iran to accept restrictions on its indigenous nuclear capacities. (Under questioning from Goldberg, he also agrees that the predicament of the Asad regime in Syria is strategically important because that regime’s fall “will be a profound loss for Iran” -- another reason for his wait-and-see approach.)
Goldberg’s interview does not paint a picture of a president preparing to yield to Israeli-GOP pressure when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu comes to Washington. Obama carefully avoids being steered off his administration’s chosen path. But the interview is also not a picture of a president who is willing to “tolerate” a nuclear-armed Iran or unwilling to send in the bombers to forestall that outcome.
The White House believes that an attack now would be rash because its self-described tactic of “tightening the noose” via sanctions is working.
Colin Kahl, who served in Obama’s Pentagon, lays it out as follows: “Paradoxically, the most likely road to containment is the very course war proponents advocate: a near-term preventive strike on Iran’s nuclear program. There are two pathways to containment. The one administration critics emphasize -- that President Obama would somehow choose to ‘live with’ a nuclear-armed Iran -- is actually the least likely. Obama has made clear that an Iranian nuclear weapon is ‘unacceptable,’ his secretary of defense has described an Iranian nuclear weapon as a ‘red line,’ and the administration has put in place unprecedented sanctions to pressure the regime to accept a diplomatic solution…. In short, the least likely road to containment is the one being pursued by the administration.”
Kahl continues: “A second, and far more likely, path to containment is to rush into war before all other options have been exhausted. A near-term US or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program would knock it back, at most, a few years. Meanwhile it would motivate Iran’s hardliners to kick out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, incentivize the regime to rapidly rebuild a clandestine nuclear program, and rally the Iranian people around that cause to deter future attacks.... The result would be the worst of all worlds: an Iran emboldened to go for a bomb and a requirement for post-war containment without the international cooperation required to actually implement such a policy.”
The obvious question is: What if “tightening the noose” does not work? What if Iran does not halt its uranium enrichment or accept extraordinary controls on same? What if, in fact, the sanctions and US-Israeli threats push Iran to step up its nuclear efforts, as Martin Indyk predicts? (Indyk, of course, is an author of the “dual containment” plan that he delineated in 1993 at his former place of employment, WINEP, and that helped to bring matters to this juncture.) From the arguments of Obama and Kahl, it appears that, in that case, it would be fine to contemplate war down the road because “international cooperation,” and hence the distinction from Bush that liberals crave, would be secured.
The Obama-is-innocent meme is, in fact, an index of how far the hawks have already bent the stick in their general direction (with an assist from the Iranian hardliners). Liberals once defended the idea of Obama reaching out to Iran; now their line is that his approach is tougher on Iran than the GOP or Israel.
The clock is probably not ticking as fast as Indyk posits. In the long view, though, what is happening is that liberals (and maybe Europeans as well) are being softened up for a future scenario in which their man, because he has “exhausted all other options,” emulates his detested predecessor in ordering a “preventive” military strike of dubious legality and tenuous relation to Americans’ security (as opposed to “national security”). This scenario is far from inevitable, but it would really help if liberals stopped deluding themselves about what is at stake. And it would help even more if the Obama administration, instead of just trying to thread the multiple needles of the ambient war talk, and thus “leading from behind” in threatening Iran, pursued a genuinely alternative Iran policy.