The fusion of the nonproliferation cause and the "war on terror" militarized the former even as it lent the latter an apocalyptic underpinning that this radical bid for global American hegemony otherwise would have lacked. Counterproliferation was to the "war on terror" what the domino theory had been to the Vietnam War during the Cold War — the long string of vividly imagined failures that led one after another to total defeat. All the urgency of nuclear danger ("the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," as Bush warned at the time) was superadded to the already intoxicating brew mixed by the 9/11 attacks, the anthrax attacks, the war in Afghanistan and so forth.
The offspring of this union was the Iraq War. It was to be both act and warning — both removal of a concrete danger and demonstration to the world of what awaited governments that sought WMD in defiance of American wishes or that otherwise displeased the United States.
What happened next is perhaps the most peculiar chapter of the story. When the alleged WMD were not found in Iraq, the war was discredited. But the momentous change in policy that had led to the war — the change from diplomacy and agreements to force as the means for achieving nonproliferation — went unchallenged, even unnoticed. Curiously, the factual mistake regarding the war aims spared the policy the examination such a momentous shift should have received.
Perhaps that's one reason Barack Obama could adopt that policy virtually without revision and apply it lock, stock and barrel to Iran. Obama did throw out much that his predecessor embraced. He ended the US combat role in Iraq and is winding it down in Afghanistan. He did away with the term "global war on terror" and a lot of the grandiose rhetoric it occasioned. But he quietly retained, seemingly without questioning it, the steel frame of the counterproliferation policy that Bush had placed at the core of his "war on terror." In perhaps no arena is the continuity of Obama's policy with Bush's greater than in this one.
With Iran, that has placed Obama somewhere on a ladder of escalating coercion and force that leads, if push comes to shove, to war. He can ease up or he can increase the pain (Iran is "in a world of hurt," he said a year ago), but he cannot easily get off the ladder.
Wholly unsurprisingly, Israel, the pioneer in the use of force to roll back weapons of mass destruction, pushed Obama at every turn during the election, with its politically powerful supporters in the United States, to commit himself to military action. And Obama did. First, he categorically ruled out a Cold War solution (deterrence and containment) to a nuclear-armed Iran: "My policy is not containment; my policy is to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon." His reason was that the cause of nonproliferaton was too important to do otherwise. He feared that if Iran developed a nuclear weapon "that could trigger an arms race in the region, it would undermine our nonproliferation goals, it could potentially fall into the hands of terrorists."
Second, he was prepared to use force rather than allow Iran to go nuclear: "I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power…and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency." And for good measure, he added, "I don't bluff." Those were serious commitments of the prestige of the president and the United States. Like all such public ultimatums, they will be hard to unravel or evade if the contingencies they envision ever arrive.
They indeed have an unnerving resemblance to another Washington conundrum: the budget sequester. Like the sequester, a vow of war against Iran has the look of a dangerous, self-created trap, a disaster for yourself and others that you place in your own path in order to push yourself to do something more sensible — and which, when it turns out to be unachievable, propels you into the abyss.
Yet at the same time that Obama vows war, he shows every sign, with abundant reason, of wishing to back off, to leave as much leeway as possible at the brink, to escape from the war trap he has made for himself. He seems to struggle to free himself from the handcuffs that, under political pressure, he has placed on his own hands. In all likelihood, he understands the reasons that stopped previous presidents as well as the leaders of other nuclear powers from going to war to stop unwanted nuclear programs in other countries.
First, of course this president, who prides himself on winding down two wars, knows the likely immense human cost of a war with Iran, a conflict that would be bloodier than the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War combined, draw in a multitude of other powers, including great powers, and tip the world economy into a new recession or a depression. Second, he surely knows that while an air attack on Iran might set back its nuclear program, there is no reason to think it could stop it. And certainly Obama knows that the only military step that guarantees lasting disarmament (namely ground invasion followed by regime change and lasting occupation) is as unworkable as it would be intolerable to American and world opinion — in a word, deranged. Whatever Obama's faults, a tendency to insanity is not among the qualities of this calm, controlled man.
Indeed, in an interview last year with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, Obama displayed an unmistakable, if muted, awareness of the folly of military action. He reiterated his avowal that the option of force is on the table. But then he seemed to argue against it. "Our argument," he said, "is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way historically that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That's what happened in Libya, that's what happened in South Africa."
Those countries, of course, gave up their nuclear programs through voluntary national decisions, not because force was used against them. The clear impression the president leaves is that of a man caught on an escalator leading to a disastrous landing he does not wish to reach but does not yet quite know how to avoid. The framework of his policy greases the path toward war; but his instincts, it seems, pull him in the opposite direction.
It's still possible that Iran and the United States will reach some compromise permitting a restricted uranium enrichment program. Negotiations are now under way to explore this possibility. But it's also possible that Iran will call the bluff of this president who says he does not bluff. It is then that the lessons of that exercise in pointless brutality, the Iraq War, should be heeded to protect the United States, Iran, the Middle East and the world from a second, and greater, avoidable catastrophe. The war in Iraq that began ten years ago would then at last serve a good purpose. It would stop the next war.