We are going to war with Iran. Maybe not by November, maybe not even under this president. But just because I added that last phrase, don’t dismiss this lightly. The central fact of this past week, which seems to have escaped everyone’s attention (which itself boggles my mind), is that Barack Obama, in his speech to AIPAC Sunday, as in his interview with Jeff Goldberg before it, all but made war someday inevitable. How? By saying that containment of a nuclear Iran was not an option. Americans need to be clear on the full implications of this statement.
The coverage of the speech proves the old dictum—well, it’s my old dictum, anyway—that what is “news” isn’t necessarily what is important. The newsy takeaway, at least according to The New York Times and the many outlets that take their cue from the Times, is that Obama warned against bluster and “too much loose talk” of war with Iran.
That was interesting, and, to the extent that it illustrates tension between Obama and the war caucus, I can see how it’s “news.” But the important part of the speech, the sentences that historians might be ruing and Americans regretting 15 years from now, was this: “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
Here’s why this is important. Ironclad vows like this tend to lock a nation into a position from which it cannot later retreat. If you were already thinking “Truman Doctrine,” give yourself a point. For those of you who weren’t, let’s review.
In the spring of 1947 the Russians were supporting the Greek communists in that country’s civil war and big-footing around the Dardanelles. Secretary of State Dean Acheson feared a communist takeover of one or both countries, an outcome that indeed would have been calamitous. Acheson persuaded Truman to make a statement to Congress about fighting Soviet expansion that would be, in his famous description, “clearer than truth.” Acheson also persuaded Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican, to back Truman on this. He did, and thus was the bipartisan Cold War consensus born. So Truman, on March 12, 1947, spoke the fateful sentence: it would henceforth be “the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
Things ended fine in Greece, where the communists lost, and Turkey, where the Russkies backed away. But virtually all important Cold War scholars agree that, 17 years later, the doctrine generally, and that sentence specifically, committed the United States to military intervention in Vietnam. That’s right—an entirely new generation of decision makers could not escape the shadow of a presidential sentence uttered many years before.
So where do Obama’s sentences leave us? It was interesting to me Sunday, as I sat at the AIPAC event, to hear Liz Cheney speaking before Obama took the stage, aiming rhetorical bullets at Obama in her usual way—but on the containment issue, saying in essence exactly what Obama said. So there’s no daylight between the two of them on this question. And once an American president, especially a Democratic one, who would be less expected to say such a thing, takes the no-containment position, it seems to me that it’s awfully hard for him, or even a successor, as Jack Kennedy learned vis-a-vis Truman, to back away.
Maybe Obama is right. Maybe we can’t and should not live with a nuclear Iran any more than Truman was prepared to live with a communist Greece. Opponents of the “no containment” policy must acknowledge the very real danger of a nuclear Iran. But if people like me have to address that question, hard-liners should have to address this question: Why exactly would the mullahs launch a nuclear first strike against Israel (or anyone) knowing full well that if they do they will be blasted into the Stone Age? The historical record shows amply that every time a new nation got the bomb, from the USSR to Pakistan to whoever, the hard-liners have always screamed that these people were “different,” not bound by Western morals or norms. Yet it remains the objective fact that the only country that’s ever used the big one is the country whose “serious” foreign-policy intellectuals keep warning us that all these other nations are about to.
We need to understand the stakes here. Sunday, Obama laid the groundwork for more war. Whether he truly believes containment can’t work in Iran, or he’s just placating (a) the very Americans who led us into our glorious struggle in Iraq and (b) the Israelis who are taking their society to the existential breaking point is something we may never know. But whatever his motivation, he did it. And he didn’t just lay the groundwork for more war—he laid the groundwork for another preemptive war. Or preventive, if you prefer. I don’t think it makes much difference to the people on the receiving end, or in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The “hey, chill out” aspects of the speech were fine. If Bibi Netanyahu agrees to wait a bit—and Andrew Sullivan was exactly right last week, that Netanyahu is easily Obama’s “most dangerous GOP opponent”—then who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and the sanctions and concerted diplomacy will make Iran change course. Obama has been underestimated in these matters before. And maybe “no containment” will help scare Iran straight. But even if that happens, someday there’ll be another Iran, and then another. Obama’s two sentences on Sunday will loom over every one of those situations. And don’t forget—they may well force action sooner rather than later, and may be two of the most fateful sentences of his presidency.