Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Monday, March 5, 2012

False Distinction Between Obama and Bush On Iran?

Chris Toensing at MERIP has a provoking essay piercing the conventional (mainstream) liberal argument that President Obama has pursued a path on Iran qualitatively divergent from that of his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

In one of the 2008 Democratic primary debates, then-Senator Obama distinguished himself by endorsing direct negotiations with Iran's putative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but has reneged on that principle since coming to office. Contrary to the notion that the administration has sought to coax Iran through "engagement", the administration has not spoken with Iranian officials in any manner above that of the Bush administration.

Instead Toensing purposes that the Obama administration may be limiting its options through its declared pronouncements. In particular he references a recent interview the president gave:
The president himself has now given an extensive interview to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in which he stresses that the US will “continue to apply pressure until Iran takes a different course” in its nuclear program. He clarifies that the oft-repeated phrase “all options are on the table” “includes a military component.” Obama says that if Israel were not clamoring on the sidelines, “It would still be a profound national security interest of the United States to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” due to non-proliferation concerns “in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions.” That is why is not possible to contain a nuclear-armed Iran and why the thrust of his policy is, at the very least, to compel Iran to accept restrictions on its indigenous nuclear capacities. 
In the end, the administration may end up pursuing a policy of war that will give the appearance of war-as-a-last-resort without actually ever exhausting diplomatic options. But this narrative may make war more palatable among liberals:
In the long view, though, what is happening is that liberals (and maybe Europeans as well) are being softened up for a future scenario in which their man, because he has “exhausted all other options,” emulates his detested predecessor in ordering a “preventive” military strike of dubious legality and tenuous relation to Americans’ security (as opposed to “national security”). This scenario is far from inevitable, but it would really help if liberals stopped deluding themselves about what is at stake. And it would help even more if the Obama administration, instead of just trying to thread the multiple needles of the ambient war talk, and thus “leading from behind” in threatening Iran, pursued a genuinely alternative Iran policy.
A war though, paradoxically, may end up instituting a de facto containment policy - the very same policy that Iran hawks accuse Obama of preferring and themselves oppose in the name of an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. 
“A second, and far more likely, path to containment is to rush into war before all other options have been exhausted. A near-term US or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program would knock it back, at most, a few years. Meanwhile it would motivate Iran’s hardliners to kick out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, incentivize the regime to rapidly rebuild a clandestine nuclear program, and rally the Iranian people around that cause to deter future attacks.... The result would be the worst of all worlds: an Iran emboldened to go for a bomb and a requirement for post-war containment without the international cooperation required to actually implement such a policy.”
The president, Toesning argues, is (of course) agentive. And the policy the administration has decided on has to be judged in its own right and not configured as a good cop vs. bad cop regime (Obama vs. Congress, Israel and anti-Iranian Arab regimes applying pressure for an attack) where the administration is opposed to war and pro-diplomacy. Instead of coaxing Iran away from its nuclear program, the administration - through the appearance of diplomacy and commitment to non-war (which is not to say non-violence) measures (i.e. sanctions) - may be laying the acquiescence for war among its liberal base:

From the arguments of Obama... it appears that, in that case, it would be fine to contemplate war down the road because “international cooperation,” and hence the distinction from Bush that liberals crave, would be secured. The Obama-is-innocent meme is, in fact, an index of how far the hawks have already bent the stick in their general direction (with an assist from the Iranian hardliners). Liberals once defended the idea of Obama reaching out to Iran; now their line is that his approach is tougher on Iran than the GOP or Israel.
And that's the last point. Obama was supposed to be the pro-peace president applauded for willing to talk to America's enemies, akin to Kennedy and Reagan. Now a "crippling" sanctions regime, before direct negotiations have even been attempted, are applauded by the left as a reflection of the administration's "tough line" on Iran (never recognizing, or at least conceding, the cost to the well-being of the average Iranian) and likewise a worthy distinction from the "Bushie" hawks who prefer war; even though the very applauded path may eventually, or inevitably, lead to war barring a diplomatic breakthrough. So the distinction is one of time (war now or later) and not of substance. And not one of peace vs. war either since even the policy of sanctions is hardly a peaceful path toward reconciling conflicting interests with an antagonist.

A little leftie cartoon illustrates this point: 

H/T: Glenn Greenwald.

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