Prognosticators from the LondonTimes to Democratic pundit James Carville are predicting that President Obama this year will finish a deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program. With a record of foreign policy failure, Obama is eager for a seeming success, even if the agreement leaves the mullahs with the capacity to quickly build some nuclear bombs at a time of their choosing. Such an outcome would obviously be a strategic disaster, leaving this country and its regional allies vulnerable to an inveterate enemy driven by an apocalyptic ideology.
Obama and his foreign policy team will bear the brunt of responsibility for this failure, as they should. In addition to displaying sheer incompetence and ignorance in his foreign policy, the president has serially sacrificed our security and interests to political needs. Time and again he has made decisions based on partisan calculations that tried to reconcile the ideological dogma of his left-wing base with the demands that something should be done about global threats.
For example, Obama sent more troops to Afghanistan in 2009 in order to salvage what in his 2008 presidential campaign he called the “good war,” but at the same time he announced a date-certain withdrawal that undercut our forces’ effectiveness and signaled the Taliban to just wait us out. More blatantly, after four Americans, including a diplomat, were murdered in Benghazi several weeks before the 2012 presidential election, his administration camouflaged its responsibility by blaming an obscure Internet video for inciting the violence despite all the evidence to the contrary. The looming bad deal with Iran will be another such sacrifice of the country’s interests, this time to Obama’s “legacy.”
Yet these political machinations have taken place in the larger context of ideas about the conduct of foreign policy that go beyond Obama. At their heart is a view of human nature as unitary, in the sense that all peoples, no matter their religion, traditions, or culture, mostly want the same things we in the West want, and will act to achieve these aims using the same utilitarian calculus. This assumption underlies a second one: that since most people want peace and order, conflict can be resolved through diplomacy, agreements, treaties, and other non-lethal forms of persuasion like economic sanctions. The fundamental weakness of this set of assumptions has been demonstrated repeatedly over the last century––it neglects the irrational motivations of peoples, and the multiplicity of conflicting goods they will pursue no matter how destructive they may be.
Obama came into office having publicly endorsed this foreign policy philosophy. Doing so reinforced the perception that he was the opposite of George Bush, who had been cast by progressives as a cowboy warmonger responsible for the difficulties of the Iraq war. Most important, the received wisdom at the time was that “this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we’re now forced to war,” as Democratic Senator Tom Daschle said of Bush. Senator Obama, in an important 2007 essay in Foreign Policy, similarly announced that “we must launch a comprehensive regional and diplomatic initiative to help broker an end to the civil war in Iraq,” and he promised to “reinvigorate American diplomacy” as the way to resolve conflicts with Iran and Syria.
Obama’s handling of the Iranians’ pursuit of nuclear weapons has been predicated on these same ideas. Thus he has repeatedly reached out to the Iranians both publicly and secretly, and made concessions to keep them at the bargaining table, only to be met with more belligerent rhetoric and escalating demands, even as the mullahs keep supporting terrorist outfits that have killed our troops, and spinning the centrifuges on their way to a nuclear bomb.
But Obama’s feckless behavior also reflects the mistaken ideas outlined above. Consider his response to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg last year, regarding Iran’s religious extremism.
“If you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits. And that isn’t to say that they aren’t a theocracy that embraces all kinds of ideas that I find abhorrent, but they’re not North Korea. They are a large, powerful country that sees itself as an important player on the world stage, and I do not think has a suicide wish, and can respond to incentives. And that’s the reason why they came to the table on sanctions.”
Despite the passing nod to a “worldview” and “theocracy,” Obama reduces the Iranian regime’s behavior to material “interests” that trump religion. He says the mullahs do not have a “suicide wish,” and hence “respond to incentives,” after making a rational calculus of “costs and benefits.” But Obama’s fundamental mistake is in misunderstanding the purpose or aim of these calculations, or of Iran’s desire to be “an important player on the world stage.” As followers of an apocalyptic, messianic version of Shi’a Islam, the mullahs running Iran are after much bigger fish than just being a global “important player.” They are pursuing the religiously inspired precepts of the founder of their state, the Ayatollah Khomeini: “We shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry, ‘There is no God but God’ resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.”
Moreover, while the secular, materialist Obama thinks the mullahs don’t have a “suicide wish,” from the mullahs’ perspective, the sacrifice of their own and others’ lives is trivial compared to the religiously sanctioned aim of that sacrifice. As Khomeini allegedly said about Iran, “I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.” For 14 centuries Muslim warriors have claimed that they love death the way infidels love life, and for 14 centuries their actions have proved that claim to be more than rhetoric, most gruesomely on 9/11. Thus we should not assume that the mullahs privilege life over death in the pursuit of their aims.
As Michael Oren wrote a few years ago,
“A nuclear-armed Iran creates not one but several existential threats. The most manifest emanates from Iran’s routinely declared desire to ‘wipe Israel off the map,’ and from the fact that cold war calculi of nuclear deterrence through mutually assured destruction may not apply to Islamist radicals eager for martyrdom. Some Israeli experts predict that the Iranian leadership would be willing to sacrifice 50 percent of their countrymen in order to eradicate Israel.”
This traditionally Islamic triumphalist goal has determined Iran’s behavior for the last four decades. It explains their support of numerous terrorist groups, their genocidal intentions towards Israel, and their relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons, which would reorder the whole region to Iran’s benefit and mark a giant step towards Iranian global dominance. Lacking for now the military force necessary to reach that end, the mullahs have manipulated the negotiating process and exploited the West’s failure of civilizational nerve to make incremental advances. In this they are following the North Koreans, who for decades–– under both Democratic and Republican presidents–– brilliantly played the game of negotiation, “agreed frameworks,” “moratoriums,” Western concessions, and broken promises, until the day it announced it possessed nuclear weapons.
Obama will deserve obloquy if Iran gets the bomb. But let’s not forget the bad ideas that will have facilitated his failure. We can change administrations with our vote. But ideas that have long permeated the minds of millions, especially those entrusted with making a foreign policy that keeps us safe and advances our interests, are not so easily discarded.