When he took office in January 2009, Barack Obama flirted with two foreign policy initiatives that might have shaped the course of his presidency: a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan and a big push for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Realizing that neither was likely to succeed, he settled into what has been his dominant Middle East strategy ever since: Don’t get bogged down in the Middle East.
It makes sense. The military is exhausted. The American public is polarized. The government is in debt. Obama wants to be Eisenhower, the guy who ended the war in Korea and avoided sending ground troops to Vietnam. He wants to rein in America’s runaway empire and rebuild the domestic foundation of U.S. strength.
There’s a problem with this approach. Like Eisenhower, who kept the Cold War cold but rarely questioned the idea of cold war itself, Obama has tried to avoid military intervention without taking steps to resolve the one problem that’s most likely to draw the U.S. into future Middle Eastern conflicts: America’s cold war with Iran.
That’s crucial to understanding the bizarre position Obama has found himself in on Syria. He badly wants to keep the U.S. out of Syria’s civil war. But he’s failed to make a serious diplomatic effort at ending that war, because doing so would require negotiating with Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s key benefactor. As a result, the U.S. watched passively as Syria descended deeper into hell, until Assad did something so shocking—used chemical weapons on a large scale—that it forced Obama to contemplate military action. That’s the problem with America’s cold wars. They fuel proxy wars that aren’t cold at all—and which, if they’re allowed to degenerate, can eventually suck in the U.S.
This may still happen in Syria. The agreement between the U.S. and Russia to dismantle Assad’s chemical-weapons arsenal was a shrewd ploy by Russian President Vladimir Putin to forestall a U.S. strike. Sooner or later, however, it will become clear that Assad won’t—and maybe can’t—rid his country of chemical weapons. Why would he turn over critical weaponry, however evil, when he’s in a fight to the death? Once that happens, hawks will again pressure Obama to attack. Even if he initially resists, the horrors of the Syrian civil war may become so overwhelming that—as happened to Bill Clinton in Bosnia in the mid-1990s—they force deeper U.S. involvement. Once again, Obama’s diplomatic passivity may push him to the precipice of military action, exactly where he doesn’t want to be.
When it comes to Iran itself, the danger is even greater. As he’s done with Syria’s chemical weapons, Obama has drawn a very public red line around Iran’s ambitions to build a nuclear bomb. It’s possible he’ll get lucky, and Iran won’t cross it during his time in office. His failure to move more aggressively diplomatically, however, has made him vulnerable to an external event that could leave him no choice but to go to war.
There’s a different path. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, was elected to rehabilitate an economy maimed by Western sanctions. Although insistent on Iran’s right to a nuclear program, he’s made it clear that the only way to improve the economy is to change its relationship with the West. Unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose idea of interfaith dialogue was questioning the Holocaust, Rouhani tweeted well wishes for the Jewish New Year. He’s appointed an American-educated foreign minister who says he wants to “build trust” with the U.S. Rouhani has hinted that Iran could accept a Syria without Assad. Rumors are flying that he’ll unveil a major initiative when he visits New York to address the General Assembly of the United Nations. That might even include a willingness to shut the Fordow nuclear installation, where hundreds of centrifuges now spin.
Rouhani does not have ultimate authority over Iran’s foreign policy and nuclear program; that resides with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It’s entirely possible that, despite outward hints of moderation, Iran’s leaders will never help broker a Syrian peace pact that ushers Assad out of power, or accept the kind of tough international oversight necessary to keep the country from getting a nuclear weapon.
But if Obama wants to stop backsliding into Middle Eastern wars, he must do everything in his power to give negotiations with Iran a chance to succeed. That means more than just trading letters with the Iranian leader or even authorizing U.S. officials to begin direct talks. Obama will also have to push back against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that Iran halt all uranium enrichment—a demand most experts believe Iran will never accept—and make the case that the U.S. could accept low-level enrichment, say, up to as much as 5 percent, if it were accompanied by beefed-up international inspections. He’ll need to resist new sanctions, which would destroy any chance of building the trust negotiations need to succeed. He’ll have to raise the prospect of gradually reducing the sanctions America has in place now as part of a step-by-step process that caps Iran’s nuclear program.
Perhaps most significant, Obama will have to say clearly that America’s goal in Iran is not regime change, because the fear of U.S.-led regime change is one key reason many Iranians want a bomb in the first place. (Besides, opening Iran to the West would do far more to undermine its theocracy than a cold war that gives Tehran’s leaders an excuse to brutalize dissenters at home.)
In other words, to maximize his chances of avoiding war in the Middle East, Obama must wage political war at home. That means telling the American people that a compromise with Iran is going to require just that: compromise. In Congress today, being ultrahawkish on Iran is politically safe; being even mildly dovish is politically dangerous. Any national politician who supports a diplomatic deal that doesn’t result in Iran’s abject capitulation risks being accused of appeasement.
Obama must begin changing that political reality now. The good news is, as the debate over military intervention in Syria showed, Americans don’t need much convincing that the U.S. shouldn’t fight another war in the Middle East. Obama’s task is to shape that war-weariness into support for a diplomatic agreement. He’ll have to find allies capable of spending the millions necessary to combat what will likely be a massive media blitz from Sheldon Adelson and other ultrahawks against any deal with Iran. He needs generals who can tell the public and their representatives what many in the U.S. military already believe: that an American strike would have limited benefits and potentially disastrous costs. In short, he needs to begin preparing for the climactic foreign policy battle of his presidency.
In that battle, Obama will have one more underappreciated advantage. When he truly believes in something, he’s still the best communicator in Washington. At times in his presidency—whether during his tortured half-surge in Afghanistan or his recent lurch toward military intervention in Syria—he’s looked like a man arguing for a course of action he didn’t want but couldn’t figure out how to avoid. By contrast, preventing a third Middle Eastern war and ending America’s debilitating, decades-old standoff with Iran are the kinds of goals Obama was elected to pursue. One of the key moments of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign came when Obama endorsed direct negotiations with Tehran, despite being pilloried by Hillary Clinton as soft and naive. Now it’s time for him to take the risks for peace he promised voters he would.