Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University is a certified member of the foreign policy establishment, and therefore no partisan conservative. He writes lucidly in the latest issue of The American Interest about the fundamental differences between arms control with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and with Iran today. Today’s arms talks with Iran are more significant than our talks with the Soviets, which is why Mandelbaum is dismayed with the weakness of Obama’s arms diplomacy:
For all the contemporaneous attention they commanded, the arms control talks and agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union had less significance than do the current negotiations with Iran. . . If the Islamic Republic becomes a nuclear weapons state, other Middle Eastern countries will likely get nuclear weapons of their own. If that occurs, the conditions that forestalled nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union will be absent. . .
During the Cold War American arms control policy was linked to Soviet foreign policy. When that policy waxed aggressive, it became politically impossible to gain the necessary political support in the United States for an arms control accord. . . The Obama approach to the Iranian nuclear program has had, if anything, the opposite effect. As the negotiations have proceeded the Iranian regime has expanded rather than pulled back from the initiatives that threaten the security of countries aligned with the United States.
The article cannot conceal that Mandelbaum thinks Obama is naïve in his Iran strategy. He not only thinks we shouldn’t take military options off the table, but that an effective campaign against Iran could be done at relatively low risk to ourselves.
In the current negotiations, by contrast, the United States is far stronger than Iran, yet it is the United States that has made major concessions. After beginning the negotiations by insisting that the Tehran regime relinquish all its nuclear facilities and cease all its nuclear activities relevant to making a bomb, the Obama administration has ended by permitting Iran to keep virtually all of those facilities and continue some of those activities. How did this happen?
Part of the explanation may lie in Barack Obama’s personal faith in the transformative power of exposure to the global economy and his fervent desire for an agreement to serve as a capstone to his presidency. Surely the main reason, however, is that, while there is a vast disparity in power between the two parties, the United States is not willing to use the ultimate form of power and the Iranian leaders know this.
The only certain way to prevent Iran from making nuclear weapons is to destroy its facilities for doing so. President Obama has occasionally hinted that he is prepared to do this—“all options are on the table,” he has said—but over time this threat, such as it is, has lost credibility.
But most significant is his concluding paragraph:
[F]inally, if the Obama administration is in fact resolutely opposed to the use of force to keep Iran from making nuclear weapons, then American foreign policy has changed in a fundamental way. For more than seven decades, since its entry into World War II, the United States has carried out a foreign policy of global scope that has included the willingness to go to war on behalf of vital American interests. There is no higher or more urgent current American interest beyond the country’s borders than keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of an aggressive, theocratic, anti-American regime located in a region that harbors much of the oil on which the global economy depends. If fighting to vindicate that interest has become unthinkable, then American foreign policy has entered a new era. Whatever else may be said about this new era and the kind of world to which it will give rise, one thing is certain. By promulgating this new foreign policy (if that is what he is doing), Barack Obama will have achieved one of the goals he set out for himself when he came to the White House: he will be a transformational President.
That’s not an endorsement. Read the whole thing, as a they say.