In spite of what some conspiracy-minded critics on the right think, mainstream journalists like Time’s Joe Klein do not often agree with Fidel Castro. That both Klein and Castro think the chances of war between the United States and Iran have increased recently is worth noting. I happen to think they are right.
The problem is not, as Castro would argue, that the United States under President Obama is bellicose and imperialist. President Obama genuinely does not want war with Iran and would make any reasonable concession (and even a few unreasonable ones) to keep the peace. And while what I hear matches Klein’s observation that the US military is more confident than it was a year or two ago about its ability to succeed against Iran (“The Iranians aren’t ten feet tall,” is what one soldier told me), the military isn’t exactly pulling on the leash.
Nevertheless, there is a significantly greater chance that President Obama will lead the United States into a war with Iran than many observers think — and that chance is growing rather than shrinking as the confrontation wears on.
The failure to grasp the real possibility that Obama may confront the mullahs reflects the difficulty that many foreign policy experts have in understanding the way that President Obama’s world view differs from a conventional realist perspective.
Most analysts are looking at the US-Iranian confrontation from the standpoint of realpolitik. Issues like the regional balance of power, US relations with key regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and economic factors (the price of oil) are being taken into account. Those are important issues, and they are the kind of issues that under the right circumstances might have led other US presidents (like George H. W. Bush) towards confrontation with Iran.
But those are not the issues that move President Obama. Under extreme conditions this president might respond to a realist threat to vital American interests with force, but the core of his global agenda isn’t about the balance of power or the Straits of Hormuz. Threats of that kind call forth Obama’s patience and summon him to diplomacy rather than war.
The conventional wisdom that Obama will end up learning to live with an Iranian bomb rather than risking a military confrontation to stop it rests on the perception, accurate as far as it goes, that the strictly realist case for confronting Iran is unlikely to move this president. (Additionally, his perceived lack of love for the Jewish state means that the ‘solidarity with Israel’ argument might, some feel, carry little conviction in the Oval Office.)
This relative indifference to realist concerns does not make President Obama indifferent to global affairs. Far from it. As laid out in the 2010 National Security Strategy and as President Obama has made clear on many occasions, the United States has a president with a vision for the kind of world he wants to build, and as he made plain in his Oslo Nobel speech, there are things for which he is willing to fight. As columnist Phillip Stevens writes in that excellent newspaper the Financial Times, Strobe Talbott recently gave a speech in the UK that described President Obama’s Wilsonian vision very well. As Talbott says, “it is hard to imagine an American president more committed … to the need for effective global governance.” This is a theme I’ve written about myself in Foreign Policy.
To understand the way this President’s relations with Iran are likely to unfold, we have to look at the impact of Iranian policy on the issues that matter most deeply to President Obama. In my view, Iran and this President are headed toward a confrontation in which President Obama will either have to give up all hope on the issues he cares about most, or risk the use of force to stop Iran.
Ideas and ideals move this president more than the regional balance of power or the price of crude. In many ways a classic example of the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy, President Obama believes that American security can best be safeguarded by the construction of a liberal and orderly world.
The present international system, often (though to my mind somewhat crudely) identified with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, starts from the idea that each government is completely sovereign to police and rule its people as it thinks best, and to defend itself and advance its power and interests internationally in whatever ways seem good to it. Wilsonians hate Westphalia, which seems to make governments independent of both moral and legal restraints. The essence of the Wilsonian project is to turn the system of Westphalian, sovereign states into a society of states under the rule of some basic laws and principles governing how they behave internationally and at home.
Think of the European Union blown up to a global scale; in the Global Union nations would have their own governments and their own laws, but an increasingly dense framework of commonly agreed-upon laws and norms, and an increasingly complex and effective web of global institutions would supplement and in many cases replace the authority of national governments.
President Obama is not a naif: he does not plan to build the GU tomorrow. He knows that the construction of this order, if it happens at all, will likely take place over many years and through many small steps rather than a handful of big ones. He is not dogmatic about the final form it will take; perhaps it will be a looser global association without the kind of political and legal identity of the EU.
President Obama doesn’t think that creating the GU is going to be accomplished under his leadership, nor is he, I think, entirely certain that the world can ultimately reach even a modest version of this goal. But he does believe that there is no other way to make the United States (and the other nations of the earth) secure, and he believes that the core strategic challenge facing American foreign policy is to gradually move the world in the direction of a post-Westphalian peace.
What does this have to do with the potential for a deadly clash between the ambitions of the Iranian mullahs and the ambitions of the American president?
The consequences of the Iranian nuclear drive for the President’s Wilsonian project are deadly; the Iranian nuclear program can fairly be called an existential threat to the Wilsonian ideal. In particular a nuclear Iran will kill the two dreams at the heart of President Obama’s foreign policy and indeed of his view of the world: the dream that the genie of nuclear weapons can be forced back into the bottle and the dream that the nations of the world can build a post-Westphalian international order in which the world’s governments are bound by deepening networks of laws.
There are a lot of people in the foreign policy world who consider both of President Obama’s dreams to be hopelessly naive. The idea that the world’s nuclear powers would ever agree to give up these expensive and powerful weapons strikes many realists as laughable. There is a realist case (which I personally buy) for the President of the United States to advocate the abolition of nuclear weapons; the United States, with its overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons, would be safer and more powerful in a world without the big bomb. Conceivably, the UK could go along as that county might welcome a chance to save money while looking idealistic. Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea and France won’t buy. Those countries have good reasons for their nuclear arsenals and they won’t give them up.
The dream that the great powers of the world will ever form a kind of universal European Union also strikes many observers of world politics as naive.
The cynics may be right (and in fact I fear they are) but that isn’t the point just now. Henry Kissinger may not believe in the creation of a post-Westphalian order, but President Obama does — at least he believes that without these noble hopes as guiding lights we will lose our way amidst the countless pitfalls of the world’s long night. And he believes this deeply enough to continue to do his best to set American foreign policy in the service of these two transcendent goals. The President of the United States is a serious and strong-willed man; these values are the rocks on which he stands.
The problem is that Iran’s success means the complete, utter and historic destruction of everything President Obama wants to build.
Make no mistake about it. If Iran gets nuclear weapons on his watch, the dream of non-proliferation comes to an end and Barack Obama will go down in history as the president who lost the fight to stop nukes.
It won’t just be Iran: if Iran defies western pressure to get nukes, every self-respecting country in the Middle East will want and need nukes. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and even some of the smaller fry will have to make their moves. They won’t all get the bomb but enough of them will. This will have a disastrous impact on America’s ability to carry out one of its principle global tasks and ensure the steady and uninterrupted flow of oil to the great industrial and commercial centers of the world — but that isn’t all. The decisive failure of the nonproliferation agenda in the Middle East undermine nonproliferation everywhere, not only because the Bomb will become even more of a coveted symbol of first class international status than it already is, but because with all those proliferating states buying and selling the technology, it will be harder to stop countries from moving ahead. The global black market in nuclear tech will spread like kudzu; there will be so many sources and so many destinations that the traffic will be harder than ever to stop.
At the same time, nobody will pay attention to UN sanctions and other huffings and puffings of an equally vain kind. The birds will have figured out that the scarecrow can’t move; they will perch on its broomstick and poop on its head.
It gets worse. The collapse of nonproliferation will mark the definitive death of the post-World War Two legal regime, just as the League of Nation’s failure to protect Ethiopia from Italy brought an end to the interwar fling with a law-based world.
If solemn treaties, sacred oaths and decades of patient diplomatic effort can’t stop the spread of nuclear weapons, what can international law really accomplish? What is the Security Council except an exalted talking shop if it can’t summon the unity and the resolve to act effectively in the face of a naked challenge to one of the foundations of international order? If global institutions can’t solve this problem, how can such weak and unpredictable organizations be trusted with any urgent and vital problem? If the treaty on non-proliferation is essentially a dead letter, what treaties still command respect? If countries only obey treaties as long as they want to, and the international system can take no effective action against those who break its most important laws, what becomes of the Wilsonian dream?
If Iran gets the bomb, the world will change in ways that are deeply destructive of everything President Obama cares about. A world in which nuclear weapons are widespread isn’t just a world in which the collapse of the non-proliferation movement has brought discredit on the concept of international law and binding treaties on security issues. It won’t just be a world in which the bad guys have learned that the good guys will blink if you stand up to them. It won’t just be a world in which emboldened Iranian adventurism will work more rashly and unscrupulously than ever to destroy our alliances and friends in the Middle East.
That brave new world that appears when Iran gets its nukes is an ultra-Westphalian world, a world of sovereign nation states forever emancipated from the dream of true international law. Nuclear weapons give every state — and every dictator — the ability to veto troublesome interventions in their affairs by treaty-citing busybodies and international lawyers waving documents and babbling about binding accords. If you have your finger on the button, nobody can make you do anything you truly don’t want to do: this is state sovereignty on steroids, and it is the what Barack Obama will leave as a legacy if he doesn’t stop Iran’s nuclear march.
President Obama is probably hoping that luck or fate will spare him the horrible fate of presiding over the death of his dearest ideals and of being the American president who destroyed the credibility of the international system and let the nuclear genie loose in the most dangerous part of the world. Maybe sanctions will work; maybe the Iranians will change their minds. Maybe new technical problems will crop up and slow the Iranians down enough so that he can pass the problem on to his successor — as, indeed, his predecessors handed it down to him.
I hope he is spared this choice, as indeed I hope we are all spared it. And after George W. Bush’s failures on Iraq’s WMDs, we need to be extra careful that we don’t let our policies get too far ahead of the facts.
But those who think that President Obama’s interest in basing his foreign policy on values make it unlikely that he would go to war haven’t been paying attention. For Iran to get nukes it will have to destroy the world Obama wants to build.
Will he, can he allow that to happen?
There’s a possibility that he will flinch — or, to put it another way, that his Jeffersonian instincts for restraint will triumph over his Wilsonian ambition to build a better world. But Iran is not just on a collision course with America’s core interests from a realist perspective. It is trying to destroy the world that American idealists want to build. That makes a conflict hard to avoid.