The Middle East continues its matchless record of scrambling whatever intelligence, logic, and common sense America’s most prominent political leaders and commentators may boast. Just look at Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s recent speech on President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal.
Its big problem – which got no attention, as far as I can tell – was a position on using force to block illicit Iran’s bomb-building efforts that’s just as confusing and incoherent as that expressed by the president she served as Secretary of State. More important, it contained just as much potential to send Iran a message exactly the opposite of its intent – of U.S. weakness rather than resolve.
To kick off her remarks, Clinton didn’t exactly repeat Mr. Obama’s claim that it’s the deal or war (get quote.). But she came awfully close: “Either we move forward on the path of diplomacy and seize this chance to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, or we turn down a more dangerous path leading to a far less certain and riskier future.” And as she continued explaining her support for the agreement, her reasoning inevitably raised the same fundamental and disturbing questions as the president’s – about why using military force is being treated as the last option America should use against Iran’s nuclear program, not the first.
Six weeks ago, I noted that the Obama position on the matter as stated was difficult to understand at best – even accepting (as I do) that military actions are inherently difficult to bring off successfully, and that American lives are a precious commodity. Let’s look at the issue more closely.
On the one hand, the president has emphasized that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon was so threatening to the security of the nation as a whole that it would not be allowed under any circumstances. But on the other hand, his main defenses of the deal have been that, whatever flaws critics could identify, Congress’ acceptance was imperative because keeping the allies and other negotiating parties on board with sanctions meant that no additional efforts to address these flaws was possible.
Iranian leaders could easily be forgiven for viewing these contentions as adding up to an implicit admission Mr. Obama believed that America had no viable military option to prevent their development of a weapon, including through violating the agreement, and that he was basing all his nonproliferation hopes on the threat of “snapping back” multilateral sanctions in response to cheating by Tehran. At the same time, however, as my post noted, Mr. Obama’s current Secretary of State has said publicly that not only does the president believe that the nation’s military options are viable, but that he has actually approved the development and deployment of the weapons he thinks can get the job done.
Yet if the president thinks that the Iranian program and any prospect of cheating can indeed be bombed out of existence now, if it’s such an intolerable threat to U.S. security, and if a reasonable chance exists that Iranian cheating – or a move to break-out as the deal’s key provisions expire starting ten years from now – could result in a bomb, why not take out the facilities ASAP and remove any uncertainty? The more so because the longer America waits, in theory, the bigger and therefore harder to completely eliminate Iran’s bomb-building infrastructure will become.
Nor do the two most commonly cited objections hold much water. Although Secretary of State John Kerry is indeed right in noting that the knowledge to build a nuclear weapon can’t be bombed out of existence, there would be nothing barring America from attacking anew if Iran’s scientists began reconstructing the program. In other words, Iran’s nuclear ambitions could be one of those many international problems that can’t be completely solved, at least for the time being, but that needs to be contained or managed.
Second, it’s hard to imagine global public opinion being upset for too long – even among populations that the United States does need to care about. Far from exploding in paroxysm of anti-American protest, riots, and terrorism, the Sunni Muslim world and its governments are likely to be cheering. The European allies would surely grumble, but would they really disrupt any aspect of their relations with the United States?
Shiite reactions of course would be dramatically different, but Israel seems to have Hezbollah under control, and Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad plainly has his hands full just clinging to power against ISIS and a host of other internal and external enemies. Ditto for Iraq’s Shia leadership and the more anti-American Shia elements of that fragmenting country’s population.
Russia and China would feel the sharpest sense of betrayal, but how would they react? Beijing can’t afford to jeopardize trade and broader economic ties. Would it move (even) more aggressively on disputed Asian territories and waters? Or think twice about its apparent campaign of expansionism? Similarly, would Vladimir Putin be (even) more likely to threaten or intimidate East European allies of a United States that acted so decisively? Certainly, there’s no evidence that U.S. forbearance regarding Iran has generated any Chinese or Russian restraint in their neighborhoods.
Above all, you don’t need to favor military responses at all (and that’s not the purpose of this post) to recognize that Iran’s leaders are surely making the same observations and asking themselves the same questions. So they could also well conclude that the relative benefits of an American military strike in cold-blooded terms are so compelling that Washington’s reluctance to act reflects President Obama’s belief that his military option actually isn’t promising enough to use, especially if Tehran is clever enough to avoid backing the United States into a corner before presenting it with a fait accompli.
If anything Clinton’s Iran speech last week highlighted such internal contradictions more sharply. The former Secretary of State, for example, went out of her way to express skepticism about Iran’s motives. Her approach, she made clear, would assume that “Iran will test the next president. They’ll want to see how far they can bend the rules.” Her response would be “distrust and verify.” More specifically, and crucially, in addition to relying on sanctions, Clinton would:
“shape Iranian expectations right from the start. The Iranians and the world need to understand that we will act decisively if we need to. So here’s my message to Iran’s leaders: The United States will never allow you to acquire a nuclear weapon. As president, I will take whatever actions are necessary to protect the United States and our allies. I will not hesitate to take military action if Iran attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon. And I will set up my successor to credibly make the same pledge. We will make clear to Iran that our national commitment to prevention will not waver depending on who’s in office. It’s permanent. And should it become necessary in the future, having exhausted peaceful alternatives, to turn to military force, we will have preserved and in some cases enhanced our capacity to act. And because we’ve proven our commitment to diplomacy first, the world will more likely join us.”
Yet there’s certainly a reasonable chance that the big takeaway in Tehran from this passage is the tension between Clinton’s suggestion that (a) America has the capability to “turn to military force” right now, and that (b) she will “exhaust peaceful alternatives” before taking that step. Fueling Iran’s confidence even more strongly might be Clinton’s acknowledgment – significantly different from the blanket defense presented by Obama – of flaws in the deal’s monitoring and inspection provisions, and especially the length of time (up to 24 days) that could pass before Iran must allow access to suspect sites and activities. To view the use of force as a last option against an untrustworthy adversary with a record of cheating simply doesn’t easily square with the view that force is an option in which Clinton has considerable faith. It could look more easily squared with a strategy of placing hope in a bluff.
None of these problems have changed my conclusion that this bad Iran deal is better than no deal at all, Yet they also leave me convinced that America’s best bet by far for security against Middle East threats is disengaging from continuous intervention in this ruined region’s chaotic affairs, and capitalizing on geography’s vast potential to keep them far from the nation’s shores.