At American University on Wednesday, President Obama defended his Iran nuclear agreement and depicted the issue at hand as a choice between "diplomacy or some form of war." To walk away from the deal was inevitably to plunge into armed conflict.
"Maybe not tomorrow," Obama warned, "maybe not three months from now, but soon."
In fact, the choice is not war or peace. It's same ol' same ol' versus something completely different. Hidden within the Iran deal are the seeds of a radical shift in United States policy in the Middle East, a shift that holds great promise while entailing equally large risks.
At least since 9/11 and arguably for two decades before that, two propositions have informed U.S. policy in the Mideast. The first is that U.S. interests there are best served by the United States establishing a position of unquestioned preeminence. The second is that military might, wielded unilaterally if necessary, holds the key to maintaining that dominant position. Call it the Big Enchilada policy, with attitude.
As implemented, however, that approach has yielded almost uniformly unfavorable results. Iraq and Afghanistan provide exhibits A and B, of course. But Libya, Somalia and Yemen don't look much better. Even so, some hawkish types argue that trying a little harder militarily will produce better outcomes. Their ranks include a platoon of Republican presidential candidates vowing if elected to get tough on the ayatollahs.
Now it's possible to chalk up some of the Republican hyperbole to the perceived imperatives of domestic politics. When Mike Huckabee accuses Obama of marching Israelis to "the door of the oven," he's actually signaling his fealty to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These days, to become a viable Republican candidate, this is just one of those things you have to do. It's like promising to close down the IRS, prohibit abortions or repeal Obamacare. It's nakedly cynical posturing.
Yet in another sense, the hawks have every reason to be exercised by the implications of Obama's Iran gambit. If successfully implemented, the agreement that terminates Iran's nuclear program will also end Iran's isolation, allowing it over time to resume its place as a major regional power.
Obama is gambling that the dynamics of Iranian domestic politics — a young population more desirous of enjoying the fruits of modernity than in pursuing a revolutionary Islamist agenda — will result in Iran choosing ultimately to play a responsible and stabilizing role rather than an irresponsible and destabilizing one.
Should that gamble pay off, the result may take the form of an ironic reprise of the Nixon Doctrine. In an effort to lower the U.S. profile after Vietnam, President Nixon had looked to the shah of Iran to bear the burden of policing the Persian Gulf. As Obama peers a decade or more down the road, he may glimpse Iran playing a comparable role by choosing order over disorder and prosperity over antagonism.
In that case, the Big Enchilada could take a break. Rather than vainly seeking preeminence, U.S. policy could pursue a multilateral approach. Rather than engaging in continuous and futile wars, it could gather its strength and find more productive ways to expend its limited resources. Instead of our problem, the Middle East could become their problem.
The debate over Iran serves as a proxy for a far more fundamental question. The real issue is this: When it comes to the Middle East, will the United States persist in failure or will it try something different?
This deal with Iran is the most prominent indication to date that Obama is serious about embracing the latter. This duck may be lame but he's far from dead.
The White House wants the president's American University speech to be compared to one that President John F. Kennedy made there in 1963 when he proposed limits on nuclear testing. A better comparison just might be to President Ronald Reagan's willingness in the 1980s to reach out to the leader of what Reagan himself called the Evil Empire. His partnership with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev changed history. It's the possibility that Obama might accomplish something similar that has his critics so upset.
Andrew J. Bacevich is writing a military history of America's war for the Greater Middle East.