Fool Me Twice

The neocons are at it again, blasting Obama for his “weakness” on Russia and Iran. But seeing as they were completely wrong about Iraq, why should anyone listen to them?

American troops may be withdrawing from Iraq, but the shadow cast by the toppling of Saddam Hussein continues to linger on. The July 2 Washington Post features a remarkable story by Glenn Kessler showing that the Bush administration and the neoconservatives and liberal hawks who supported the invasion didn't just get it wrong. They got it exactly backwards. In every way possible and then some, they invented a threat that simply did not exist. In twenty formal interviews with the FBI, Saddam indicated that he never saw America as his true foe. Iran, not America, was on his mind. He further indicated that he had no interest in ties with terrorists. Instead, he wanted to, in his words, create a "security agreement with the United States to protect [Iraq] from threats in the region."

Have such stories chastened former Bush administration officials and neoconservatives? Induced some circumspection? Not a chance. As President Obama prepares to travel to Russia, a new neoconservative organization, the blandly named Foreign Policy Initiative, has issued a letter to him urging that he make "democracy and human rights" a priority. The letter, which was signed by a variety of neoconservatives, including former-CIA Director R. James Woolsey and Robert Kagan (as well as a smattering of liberal hawks), reminded Obama that in Cairo he had postulated a connection between democracy and stability. It argued that "this principle gained even more salience as Russia's invasion of Georgia last year revealed the lengths to which it will go to assert a sphere of influence in the region."

Not so fast. Did Russia, in fact, invade Georgia? Or did Georgia attack Russia? The latter was the case. The letter goes on to declare that "for decades, the United States was a beacon of hope to those behind the Iron Curtain who longed for their freedom," recapitulating what might be called the Farah Fawcett theory of foreign relations-that America's sheer attractiveness is so overwhelming that all resistance to it melts away. Would that it were so.

But does America, by implication, face a totalitarian Russia, intent on once more imposing its will on Eastern Europe and the so-called near abroad? No, it doesn't. There can be no doubt that Vladimir Putin's record on human rights is a dismal one. But what, precisely, is Obama supposed to do to correct it? Like Michael Jackson, the neocons seem to believe that we are the world, but it ain't so. America needs Russian cooperation on Iran and other spheres. Antagonizing it will accomplish nothing but the reverse, which may be what the neocons would like.

Indeed, in a forceful and blunt op-ed in the Washington Post, former-United Nations Ambassador John R. Bolton declares that the time for pussyfooting with Iran is over. The crushing of the protests in Iran means that the mullahs and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are on top and ready to roll. According to Bolton, "since there is no likelihood that diplomacy will start or finish in time, or even progress far enough to make any real difference, there is no point waiting for negotiations to play out."

For several reasons, however, there is. First, if Obama simply abandons negotiations, he will lose the chance to construct a coalition against Iran that includes Europe. The truth is that the mullahs have misplayed their hand. They're making it easy for Obama to unite allies against Iran should he decide to ramp up sanctions or even create an economic blockade. Second, if the mullahs refuse to negotiate or make any progress by the end of this year, Obama will also have a stronger hand should he decide to attack Iran militarily.

The mistake that Obama's critics on the Right are making, I think, is to assume that he will never attack. This is wrong. Bolton assumes that Israel would do it. Not so. No one is in a better position to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities than Obama.

But there is no reason to act precipitously. That arch-realist Bismarck once launched a war by telling the German emperor Periculum in mora (there is peril in delay), but now the perilous thing would be not delaying an attack.

For Iran's leadership is not being undermined from abroad. It's undermining itself at home. The last thing that the Obama administration should do is to retard that development by intervening in what the Soviet Union used to call the "internal affairs" of another country. To use another memorable Soviet term, the correlation of forces no longer favors Tehran, but Washington. The neocons forgot that in Iraq. There's no reason to forget it again.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.