This week, Andrew Bacevich and Noam Chomsky—two public intellectuals whose work on American foreign policy we greatly admire (and who have been very generous in their praise for our book, Going to Tehran)—published important commentaries on the recent Iran nuclear deal. In contrast to the overwhelming bulk of the voluminous drivel that has appeared on the subject in mainstream op-ed pages and online venues, the pieces by Chomsky and Bacevich are truly provocative, in the best sense of the word. We want to highlight them here.
Appearing in the Washington Post’s Outlook, Bacevich’s essay, titled “With Iran, Obama Can End America’s Long War for the Middle East,” see here, offers a contrarian (and fundamentally correct) assessment of the drivers for the Geneva nuclear deal on the U.S. side. Bacevich—in our view the most consistently and deeply insightful historian writing today about American foreign policy—places Washington’s current diplomatic effort vis-à-vis Tehran in a grand strategic context: the failure of America’s decades-long imperial project in the Middle East.
In Bacevich’s reading, this project commenced in January 1980 with the enunciation of what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine. Now, he writes,
“What Jimmy Carter began, Barack Obama is ending. Washington is bringing down the curtain on its 30-plus-year military effort to pull the Islamic world into conformity with American interests and expectations. It’s about time.
Back in 1980, when his promulgation of the Carter Doctrine launched that effort, Carter acted with only a vague understanding of what might follow. Yet circumstance—the overthrow of the shah in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—compelled him to act. Or more accurately, the domestic political uproar triggered by those events compelled the president, facing a tough reelection campaign, to make a show of doing something. What ensued was the long-term militarization of U.S. policy throughout the region.
Now, without fanfare, President Obama is effectively revoking Carter’s doctrine.”
According to Bacevich, this nascent—and, as yet, largely unarticulated—shift in American grand strategy in the Middle East is hardly the product of policy success, as Obama and his acolytes would have us think. Rather,
“Like Carter in 1980, Obama finds himself with few alternatives. At home, widespread anger, angst and mortification obliged Carter to begin girding the nation to fight for the greater Middle East. To his successors, Carter bequeathed a Pentagon preoccupied with ramping up its ability to flex its muscles anywhere from Egypt to Pakistan. The bequest proved a mixed blessing, fostering the illusion that military muscle, dexterously employed, might put things right. Today, widespread disenchantment with the resulting wars and quasi-wars prohibits Obama from starting new ones…In calling off a threatened U.S. attack on Syria, for example, the president was acknowledging what opinion polls and Congress (not to mention the British Parliament) had already made plain: Support for any further military adventures to liberate or pacify Muslims has evaporated. Americans still profess to love the troops. But they’ve lost their appetite for war…
Nothing is half so melancholy as to compare the expectations informing recent American wars when they began—Enduring Freedom!—with the outcomes actually achieved. So in Obama’s Washington, moralism is out, and with good reason. Only nations with a comfortable surfeit of power can permit themselves the luxury of allowing moral considerations to shape basic policy…
As America’s War for the Great Middle East winds down, it leaves the Islamic world in worse condition—besieged by radicalism, wracked by violence, awash with anti-Americanism—than back in 1980. The list of dictators the United States has toppled or abandoned and of terrorists it has assassinated is impressively long. But any benefits accruing from these putative successes have been few. Ask Afghans. Ask Iraqis. Ask Libyans. Or ask any American who has been paying attention.”
Against this long record of policy failure, the United States needs a new, reality-based template for dealing with the Middle East—and, especially, with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Like us, Bacevich finds President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in the early 1970s a salutary model:
“Back in 1979, the “loss” of Iran provided much of the impetus for launching America’s War for the Greater Middle East. The shah’s overthrow had cost the United States an unsavory henchman, his place taken by radicals apparently consumed with hatred for the Great Satan.
At the time, the magnitude of the policy failure staggered Washington. It was as bad as—maybe worse than—the “loss” of China 30 years before. Of course, what had made that earlier failure so difficult to take was the presumption that China had been ours to lose in the first place. Discard that presumption, and doing business with Red China just might become a possibility. Cue Richard Nixon, a realist if there ever was one. By accepting China’s loss, he turned it to America’s advantage, at least in the short run.
So too with Iran today…Accept the “loss” of Iran, which will never return to America’s orbit anyway, and turn it to U.S. advantage…The exit from America’s misadventures in the region is through the door marked “Tehran.” Calling off the War for the Greater Middle East won’t mean that the political, social and economic problems roiling that part of the world will suddenly go away. They just won’t be problems that Uncle Sam is expected to solve. In this way, a presidency that began with optimism and hope but has proved such a letdown may yet achieve something notable.”
Published in Truthout, see here, Chomsky’s piece, “The ‘Axis of Evil’ Revisited,” underscores just how much America’s political class is going to have to change to go beyond the Geneva toward genuine rapprochement with Iran—and to end, really and truly, America’s wantonly destructive imperial project in the Middle East. Chomsky writes,
“The ‘landmark accord’ indeed includes significant Iranian concessions—though nothing comparable from the United States, which merely agreed to temporarily limit its punishment of Iran.
It’s easy to imagine possible U.S. concessions. To mention just one: The United States is the only country directly violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (and more severely, the United Nations Charter) by maintaining its threat of force against Iran. The United States could also insist that its Israeli client refrain from this severe violation of international law—which is just one of many.
In mainstream discourse, it is considered natural that Iran alone should make concessions. After all, the United States is the White Knight, leading the international community in its efforts to contain Iran—which is held to be the gravest threat to world peace—and to compel it to refrain from its aggression, terror and other crimes.
There is a different perspective, little heard, though it might be worth at least a mention. It begins by rejecting the American assertion that the accord breaks 10 years of unwillingness on Iran’s part to address this alleged nuclear threat.
Ten years ago Iran offered to resolve its differences with the United States over nuclear programs, along with all other issues. The Bush administration rejected the offer angrily and reprimanded the Swiss diplomat who conveyed it.
The European Union and Iran then sought an arrangement under which Iran would suspend uranium enrichment while the EU would provide assurances that the U.S. would not attack. As Selig Harrison reported in the Financial Times, “the EU, held back by the U.S. … refused to discuss security issues,” and the effort died.
In 2010, Iran accepted a proposal by Turkey and Brazil to ship its enriched uranium to Turkey for storage. In return, the West would provide isotopes for Iran’s medical research reactors. President Obama furiously denounced Brazil and Turkey for breaking ranks, and quickly imposed harsher sanctions. Irritated, Brazil released a letter from Obama in which he had proposed this arrangement, presumably assuming that Iran would reject it. The incident quickly disappeared from view.
Also in 2010, the NPT members called for an international conference to carry forward a long-standing Arab initiative to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the region, to be held in Helsinki in December 2012. Israel refused to attend. Iran agreed to do so, unconditionally.
The U.S. then announced that the conference was canceled, reiterating Israel’s objections. The Arab states, the European Parliament and Russia called for a rapid reconvening of the conference, while the U.N. General Assembly voted 174-6 to call on Israel to join the NPT and open its facilities to inspection. Voting “no” were the United States, Israel, Canada, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau—a result that suggests another possible U.S. concession today.
Such isolation of the United States in the international arena is quite normal, on a wide range of issues.
In contrast, the non-aligned movement (most of the world), at its meeting last year in Tehran, once again vigorously supported Iran’s right, as a signer of the NPT, to enrich uranium…A large majority of Arabs support Iran’s right to pursue its nuclear program. Arabs are hostile to Iran, but overwhelmingly regard the United States and Israel as the primary threats they face…The United States can be held to lead the international community only if that community is defined as the U.S. and whoever happens to go along with it, often through intimidation, as is sometimes tacitly conceded…
There are in fact two rogue states operating in the region, resorting to aggression and terror and violating international law at will: the United States and its Israeli client…It is understandable that those rogue states should strenuously object to a deterrent in the region, and should lead a campaign to free themselves from any such constraints.
Just how far will the lesser rogue state go to eliminate the feared deterrent on the pretext of an “existential threat”? Some fear that it will go very far. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations warns in Foreign Policy that Israel might resort to nuclear war. Foreign policy analyst Zbigniew Brzezinski urges Washington to make it clear to Israel that the U.S. Air Force will stop them if they try to bomb.
Which of these conflicting perspectives is closer to reality? To answer the question is more than just a useful exercise. Significant global consequences turn on the answer.”
President Obama will, no doubt, continue to insist—as he did today in a public dialogue with Haim Saban at the annual Saban Forum on U.S.-Israel relations—that the next six months are a test to see if Iran is serious about negotiating a comprehensive nuclear settlement. But the real test is for Obama, his administration, and the rest of America’s political order.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett