The Iran Long Game: Bush vs. Obama

Why when it comes to the U.S. strategy on the nuclear deal, consistency is a fool’s game.

US President George W. Bush (R) speaks d
US President George W. Bush (R) speaks during a press conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 17, 2008. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Thursday called for tightening European sanctions against Iran over its suspect nuclear program, specifically targeting investments in liquified natural gas. AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the things that struck me about George W. Bush’s foreign policy was that it was clear and consistent, both in goals and in implementation. In policy, you knew what he was for; you knew what he was against. The themes were clear: nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and democracy promotion. They were outlined in a 2002 National Security Strategy that was brief (a mere 35 pages) and to the point. At the heart of that strategy was the notion that the United States was prepared to confront its adversaries and quite ready to do so unilaterally.

Bush and his administration also implemented these objectives with striking consistency, for eight years: isolate the adversary, take unilateral or quasi-unilateral actions (someone else could come along in Iraq, but the United States was driving the train) and the use of American military force to carry out political change (Afghanistan and Iraq). The implementation principles were followed with what Ralph Waldo Emerson would call a “foolish consistency.”

Not that consistency, itself, is a bad thing. But, confronted with reality, a foolish person fails to acknowledge when the approach is wrong, when it is not working, or when it is clearly counterproductive. Bush’s priorities may have been consistent, but the execution was clearly foolish. The consequences were a significant strategic error (the invasion of Iraq), a failure to execute (leaving Afghanistan adrift while ridding the world of Saddam Hussein), and, particularly, a confrontation that exacerbated the very threat the strategy was designed to solve (Iran’s nuclear program).

Strikingly, U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy priorities have been both similar to those of Bush, and consistent. His 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, his 2009 Cairo speech and his 2010 National Security Strategy argued, consistent with Bush, that preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and confronting extremism in the form of terrorist organizations were America’s two top national security challenges.

In implementing the nonproliferation goal, however, Obama has differed noticeably from Bush, in three critical ways, ways that seek to reverse the foolishness inherent in the way Bush went about seeking these goals. As a result, we may be on the cusp of a significant step forward in halting the Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability.

Obama laid out his implementation approach at the very start of his administration, and has been markedly consistent since then. The approach appears to be based on sharply contrasting principles: the United States can lead internationally, but it can’t fix all the world’s problems; dealing with these problems will require working with others; they will never be fixed if we fail to engage the adversary; and the military is not the tool of first resort for every problem. The Iran case has become a significant test of this different implementation consistency.

The priority Obama has put on a nonproliferation goal and halting the Iranian nuclear program, in particular, has been clear from the start. He made the essential elements clear in Cairo, in 2009, a statement worth recalling in detail:

“When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations…. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build… But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path…. And any nation — including Iran — should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Though Obama has consistently refused to rule out the use of military force in this situation, non-kinetic pressure — sanctions — has been one centerpiece of the implementation strategy.

Second, engagement has been equally central. The president made it clear even before he was elected, that he would talk to America’s enemies. Taking a cue from Winston Churchill, he clearly thinks, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” This implementation guideline was built into his 2010 National Security Strategy, which also deserves recall in detail, given the consistency with which he has followed the principle:

“[W]e will pursue engagement with hostile nations to test their intentions, give their governments the opportunity to change course, reach out to their people, and mobilize international coalitions…. Through engagement, we can create opportunities to resolve differences, strengthen the international community’s support for our actions, learn about the intentions and nature of closed regimes, and plainly demonstrate to the publics within those nations that their governments are to blame for their isolation…. Many years of refusing to engage Iran failed to reverse these trends; on the contrary, Iran’s behavior became more threatening. Engagement is something we pursue without illusion. It can offer Iran a pathway to a better future, provided Iran’s leaders are prepared to take it. But that better pathway can only be achieved if Iran’s leaders change course, act to restore the confidence of the international community, and fulfill their obligations.”

Third, the administration clearly veered away from unilateralism. As Obama said in Norway on the occasion of his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, “America cannot act alone. America alone cannot secure the peace.” The sanctions against Iran are not based solely on legislative action by the Congress, but harmonized with our European allies, for maximum impact on Iran. And the Iran framework, it is important to note, is not a U.S.-Iran agreement; it is a U.N. Security Council P5+ Germany (with European Union participation) understanding with Iran, bringing all the great powers to bear. And clearly, any inspection regime that results from a final agreement (possibly in June) would be executed by an international organization skilled and experienced at the mission — the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Obama implementation principles may not amount to a doctrine, but they have brought about more progress on halting and, downstream, potentially, ending an Iranian attempt to acquire nuclear weapons than eight years of confrontation, unilateralism, threat to use force (American or Israeli), and refusal to engage. Today, the advocates of force (John Bolton or Benjamin Netanyahu), disengagement, and unilateralism cannot demonstrate that a military threat produced, or would produce, the end of the Iranian program; if anything, they accelerated the Iranian effort.

The Iranian end game may be near, but it is not yet achieved. We face over two months of hard discussion – or “jaw-jaw” — to see if the framework can lead to an actual agreement. We have two months to see if the president’s consistency of implementation — sanctions (not bombs), engagement, and multilateralism pay off. The critics of the framework will say it is a new foolish consistency.

The advocates will be holding their breath, holding off congressional efforts to block the agreement, and pushing hard for diplomatic success. Iran is clearly a monumental test of the new implementation strategy.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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