In 1998, George F. Kennan wrote:
On the foreign policy front . . . I find myself wondering why we cannot regard another country, in this case Iran, as just that, as one more country which we would regard as neither friend nor foe, with whom we are prepared to deal on a day-to-day basis, neither idealizing it nor running it down, keeping to ourselves (here, of course, I am speaking about our government) our views about its domestic political institutions and practices, and interesting ourselves only in those aspects of its official behavior which touched our interests—maintaining in other words, a relationship with it of mutual respect and courtesy, but distant.”
This near-perfect statement of the “realist” creed offers a plausible, though in my view misguided, approach to dealing with Iran. Leon Wieseltier, who dug up the Kennan quotation, claims that it expresses President Obama’s current policy.
Wieseltier is wrong. Obama’s New Yorker interview makes that clear.
The president isn’t striving for a mutually respectful and courteous but distant relationship with Iran, Wieseltier admits as much when he speaks of the “bizarre warmth between the [two] governments.”
Obama sees Iran as a strategic partner, as Wieseltier also acknowledges. He believes that if his ongoing diplomatic efforts with Iran prevail, they could bring a new stability to the region. Thus, he told the New Yorker:
[A]lthough it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion — not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon — you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.
This isn’t foreign policy realism; it’s magical thinking — the same kind that once seduced Obama and John Kerry into believing that Assad’s Syria held the key to harmony in the Middle East. If, as Obama correctly perceives, Iran intends to compete with predominantly Sunni states, not to mention Israel (as Obama doesn’t), why would it give up powerful methods of competition like funding terrorists, stirring up sectarian discontent, and developing nuclear weapons?
Just because Obama “competes” in foreign policy with at least one hand tied behind America’s back doesn’t mean that our serious adversaries will do so.