Terms of Engagement

What Would John Adams Do About Iran?

It’s time for No. 44 to channel No. 2.


In the summer of 1798, U.S. President John Adams faced the gravest crisis of his time in office. Hostilities with the revolutionary, expansionist regime in France had been rising since his election, with French privateers seizing American merchant ships off the Atlantic coast. Adams’s effort at diplomacy had backfired. The envoys he had sent to France had been met with extortionate and insulting demands; the publication of their dispatches, in what came to be known as the XYZ Affair, had provoked a firestorm of outrage and war fever, the likes of which the young republic had never before known. The public, led by Adams’s own Federalist Party, was demanding a declaration of war. Adams himself had stoked those public passions. But now, in the summer, he hesitated between belligerence and yet more diplomacy.

The United States is now locked in conflict with Iran, another revolutionary, expansionist power. It is not yet summer 1798, but it’s getting close. Today’s president, Barack Obama, as firmly committed to the principle of engagement as Adams was to the principle of neutrality, is still giving diplomacy a chance. But the bugles are sounding. Israeli officials openly and urgently talk about the need for military action; Iran has apparently responded with a barrage of assassination attempts abroad; and polls show that a majority of Americans are prepared to use force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The president is under pressure, not from his own party, but from his adversaries, to issue an ultimatum to Iran. We may be only one stupid mistake away from the point where an attack becomes unavoidable.

Although Americans view themselves as slow to anger and reluctant to take up arms, the historical record argues otherwise. Adams was the first, but not the last, U.S. president, to feel the enormous pressure of the public clamor for war. Exactly 100 years after the XYZ Affair, President William McKinley cowered before the braying of the yellow press for war against Spain, the colonial master of the Philippines and Cuba. In one of the grossest public abuses of religious sentiment on record, McKinley famously claimed that he had fallen to his knees to ask divine guidance on the issue, heard God instruct him to liberate and Christianize the Filipinos, and "slept soundly." And half a century later, when the Soviets blockaded Berlin, President Harry Truman confronted demands that he force a military showdown. The Red Army was, of course, a much more formidable foe than Spain, and Truman wisely overruled his more bloody-minded generals — as John F. Kennedy would later do during the Cuban missile crisis.

Adams himself was convinced that France threatened not only American commerce but American sovereignty; in a speech before a special session of Congress, he accused the French Directory of seeking "to separate the people of the United States from the government" in order to foment domestic upheaval. He created a new Department of the Navy and began building warships. In the aftermath of the XYZ Affair, he stood aside as Federalists whipped through Congress the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, which were aimed at French nationals and sympathizers. In short, Adams behaved less like Obama than like George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Unlike Bush, however, Adams did not want war, and neither, it turned out, did France. Once Charles M. de Talleyrand, France’s foreign minister, saw that the United States was preparing for war, he began authorizing intermediaries to tell influential Americans that France had no wish for hostilities and would accept a new envoy with none of the onerous conditions (including the payment of a douceur, or bribe, to himself) imposed on the previous mission. Adams began hearing from private citizens and diplomats, including his son John Quincy, then minister in Berlin, that France wanted peace. None of this was publicly known, and opinion remained no less inflamed. But Adams concluded he had to take a risk on Talleyrand’s bona fides. In February 1799, he appointed his minister to the Netherlands as envoy to France. And in October 1800, the two sides signed a peace treaty known as the Convention of 1800.

Standing up to the war hawks was the most noble and selfless act of Adams’s tenure. As historian William Stinchcombe concludes in The XYZ Affair, "in this respect alone his record as president must be judged as superior to that of many others." Adams believed he had signed his own political death warrant, and he may have been right: He lost considerable Federalist support and was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election. McKinley, by contrast, not only apparently slept like a baby but cruised to reelection. One moral of the story is thus that choosing diplomacy over a needless war may gain a president credit with posterity, but not with voters. If the temperature rises, Obama, too, may have to risk his political future in order to resist the call to arms.

There are other lessons of the so-called quasi-war with France more directly applicable to the current standoff with Iran. Despite its revolutionary domestic policy, France pursued its foreign interests as a rational state actor. Talleyrand was a wily schemer who laughed at ideological purity. One could not say the same, of course, for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — though the English-speaking foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, may be the closest thing to a moderate in the upper ranks of the Iranian leadership. Both, in any case, appear to be trying to maneuver Iran back from the brink. Salehi has recently said that Iran is prepared to rejoin talks with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) and has proposed doing so in Turkey. Salehi’s bona fides are at least as suspect as Talleyrand’s, but it behooves the United States and its allies to test them.

What is also clear is that it was not Obama’s initial policy of engagement that has induced the change in Iranian behavior, but the vise of economic sanctions he and others have tightened on Iran — and perhaps also the threat of war from Israel. Iran has been pursuing the logic of an expansionist foreign policy, just as France did; in both cases, revolutionary ideology essentially served to sanction classic self-aggrandizement. Iran would not be waylaid by deference and respect. Obama needed to make good his threats, as Adams needed to build his "wooden walls."

At the same time, Iran will not be deflected from pursuing its self-interest without some very significant inducement. In 1798, France needed to be reassured that the United States was not allying itself with England, as the French feared. Iran, at a minimum, must be reassured that it can retain its nuclear program, which has become a question of national identity. Obama administration officials might do well to read a recent report from the International Crisis Group that suggests that the P5+1 recognize Iran’s right in principle to enrich uranium in exchange for Iran’s acceptance of stringent safeguards on and intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities. The West would begin to relax sanctions as Iran complied with this demand as well as other measures designed to eliminate its supply of highly enriched uranium. Beyond that, the report proposes, Washington must be prepared to discuss the whole range of regional issues, including Afghanistan and Iraq, in which Tehran has an interest. If war would be a calamity, as Obama appears to think, then there can be no excuse for halfhearted diplomacy.

Iran may very well reject these terms. By 1798, France was already a status quo power; Iran, remarkably, remains a deeply ideological force even 30 years after the revolution, and it continues to play a disruptive role in world affairs. Conciliation itself could violate the leadership’s ideology or political interests — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, might carry out his power struggle with Ahmadinejad by blocking any attempt at negotiation. It may be, in short, that Iran will stop at nothing to reach at least the capacity to build a bomb. And then Obama or his successor will have to choose, not between war and diplomacy, but between war and containment. And in that case, it will take much more political courage to stick to a policy of patience and restraint.

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