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One of my favorite political anecdotes concerns an exchange that looks like it resulted from a misunderstanding. Like many such stories, though, it’s so revealing that it’s worth recounting. And it’s incredibly timely in this immediate aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal announcement.
According to initial reports, during his first, historic visit to what we used to (and still should) call “Communist China,” former President Richard Nixon was talking history with Chinese Premier Zhou En-Lai – reputedly a world-class intellectual that the chronically insecure American leader surely wanted to impress. What, Mr. Nixon supposedly asked Zhou, was the impact of the French Revolution? Replied the Paris-educated Zhou, “Too early to say.”
Eyewitnesses say that Zhou mistakenly thought Mr. Nixon was referring to the student riots that had recently rocked France, but the impression reinforced in its retelling – of Chinese farsightedness and America’s persistent short-termism – remained vivid.
President Obama and his defenders have touted the new Iran deal and the president’s overall Iran approach as embodying just the kind of strategic patience America chronically needs. I wish I could be so confident. As I’ve written previously, Mr. Obama’s optimism that Iran’s broad foreign policy will moderate as it becomes reintegrated into the world economy strongly resembles badly mistaken and longstanding expectations that a China that traded more extensively would be a much safer China. While China remained much weaker than the United States, these predictions were arguably understandable. But the reintegration process was handled so recklessly, and so much wealth and defense-related technology have been showered on China, that its belligerence has been returning as the power gap has – largely as a result – narrowed.
Iran lacks China’s global potential. But the resumption of quasi-normal trade and investment with the west in particular, coupled with the return of major oil revenues, means at the very least that its leaders will feel much less of a “guns versus butter” resource squeeze than at present. Therefore, Tehran will become better able to have its cake and eat it, too – simultaneously capable of increasing living standards at home and boosting its influence across the Middle East. So both the regime’s grip on power and its ability to continue threatening U.S. interests are likely to grow stronger, not weaker. As a result, just as with China’s leaders, the mullahs will feel that much less pressure to mend their ways.
There’s another problem with Obama’s concept of the long game. One of the hallmarks of foreign policy realism is recognizing that lasting solutions to even the most serious challenges are rarely possible short of war or some comparable event. And even the so-called military last resort is no long-term guarantee, either. Hence muddling through is often the best option diplomats face. But truly strategic muddling through doesn’t simply entail improvising from crisis to crisis and hoping for the best. It also involves actively trying to hedge – and especially to reduce risks and vulnerabilities
In other words, the same pragmatism that has convinced Mr. Obama that unattainable perfection is the enemy of this good deal should have also convinced him to come up with a Plan B. But there’s no evidence of one worthy of the name, other than vague references to using military strikes against Iran’s nuclear complex that even his senior advisers have warned him against. I’m not advocating such attacks. But how nice it would be to hear something from Mr. Obama about bolstering American missile defenses – assuming that a nuclear-armed Iran will eventually acquire intercontinental delivery vehicles.
Stronger efforts to offer such shields to allies would be welcome, too. The major role played by the United States – including under the current administration – in developing and funding Israeli missile defenses should not be overlooked, although few Israelis seem to consider even the most advanced systems deployed an adequate substitute for genuinely de-nuclearizing Iran. The president also held a greatly hyped summit with Persian Gulf leaders in May, but contrary to hopes harbored by these countries, no significantly greater defense assistance was on the administration’s agenda.
At the same time, leaving the special issue of Israel aside, the intrinsic domestic weaknesses of these Sunni Arab countries underscores Mr. Obama’s continuing failure to explore actively another promising major strategic option for America: capitalizing on the nation’s new potential, largely thanks to the domestic energy revolution, of marginalizing the entire Middle East in its security calculations. As a result of this presidential blind spot, the United States still finds its fate closely linked to a group of regional states that lack the internal cohesion to be reliable allies over any serious time span.
Meanwhile, another less explicit Obama assumption is also looking eminently challenge-able – that the United States and its western allies will hang closely enough together to put meaningful teeth in the deal’s monitoring and inspection provisions. Ironically, some alarming new evidence comes from Atlantic contributor Peter Beinart, who supports the Iran agreement.
As Beinart sees it, one main reason for accepting a flawed deal along its present lines is that the allies were unlikely to have continued supporting current sanctions if Washington held out for stronger terms. For it was precisely the hope of negotiating an Iran solution sooner rather than later that persuaded them to incur the economic losses generated by sanctions to begin with. Moreover, he quotes top British and German diplomats to this effect.
Yet if the Europeans are this money hungry, are they really likely to respond to anything but the most flagrant Iranian misbehavior by shutting the new trade off? I’m glad I don’t have to make that argument.
I’m still not willing to write off the Iran deal completely – as I believe many of Mr. Obama’s staunch conservative and Republican opponents are doing reflexively and prematurely. But if it turns out to be a bad one, I’m fully prepared to “walk away.” Here’s hoping Congress is, too – especially Democrats who will surely be tempted to back the president for their own purely partisan reasons.